Will Air Plants Kill a Tree? The Science Explained

Airplants (Tillandsia) have earned a reputation for attaching themselves to trees as they grow. Unlike other plants, air plants absorb moisture and nutrients from the air. They often use trees for support, but some people believe air plants kill trees

Air plants will not kill a tree because they are not parasitic. Rather, air plants are epiphytes. They use their holdfasts, known as roots, to hold onto trees for support, but they don’t absorb moisture or nutrients from the tree. However, a heavy growth will retard the tree’s growth.

I’ll discuss air plants in detail. I will also illustrate why trees with air plants appear to be dying and why air plants are not to blame. 

Why Air Plants Don’t Kill Trees

Since they cling to trees, many people assume that air plants destroy and kill trees. Air plants are not parasitic, and neither do they have a symbiotic relationship with the trees. Even though some trees appear to be dying, the air plants are not responsible. 

Here are reasons air plants don’t kill trees:

  • The holdfasts commonly referred to as roots, grip the trees for support. They do not take nutrients or water from their host.
  • Air plants absorb moisture and nutrients from the air.
  • The air plants are classified as epiphytes and not parasites. They don’t take anything from the trees, apart from using their trunks and branches for support. 
  • The holdfasts are not real roots, so they do not function like other plant roots. They are more like leaves or stems and are unlikely to destroy trees. 
  • Trees and air plants do not have a truly symbiotic relationship. Air plants may cling to the trees for support, but that’s where the relationship ends. Air plants sometimes hide unattractive features on trees, but it is to the homeowners’ benefit if the air plant acts as a decor.
  • Air plants grow faster on already weakened trees. This is because the weakened branch no longer grows leaves or has thinner foliage. So, the air plant gets more sunlight. However, the air plant is not responsible for the tree’s decline.

How Air Plants Harm Trees

When you look at trees or branches with air plants, most appear weakened or dying. This is why some people believe that air plants kill trees, but this is not true. Air plants don’t kill trees, but they are not entirely harmless. 

Here’s how air plants harm trees:

  • Air plants attach themselves to weakened, damaged, or stressed trees. As the air plants wrap around the tree or branch, there is limited space for foliage to grow. The leaves that grow are thin and appear unhealthy because of the limited space for growth. 
  • Air plants target vulnerable trees with few or no leaves because more sunlight penetrates the branches. This allows the air plants to grow faster and more robust. Unfortunately, this also means the epiphytes take over the tree.
  • When air plants grow too big and thick, new buds will not grow on the tree. 
  • If the air plants attach themselves or diseased or weak branches, they will cause the branches to break. 
  • Air plants get heavy during the rainy season, and the weight weakens the tree branches. 
  • As the air plants grow bigger, the grip on the trees tightens to support the extra weight. This affects the circulation of nutrients and moisture to the end of the branch. 
  • Trees that support air plants may not die, but they may have retarded growth. 

How To Remove Air Plants From Trees

Although air plants don’t kill trees, not everyone appreciates them. Some people will happily grow air plants on trees, while others prefer their trees free of air plants. When their growth becomes too dense, you may feel the need to remove the air plants

This is how to go about it.

  1. Manually remove the air plants that are within reach. 
  2. Seal them in a bag to keep the seeds from spreading and growing elsewhere. 
  3. Throw the sealed bag in the baggage. 
  4. Spray the air plants that are higher up in the tree with water. If the water pressure is low, you can attempt to use a strong burst using a bucket of water to knock them loose. However, don’t attempt to use hot water because it may harm your tree. 
  5. An alternative is to use fungicides containing copper. This is a slow process, which may take a year or longer, but the air plants will eventually die and fall off. 

This Southern Ag Liquid Copper Fungicide (available on Amazon.com) controls bacteria and fungi diseases. It also contains moss and algae and the formula features a 31.4% Copper Ammonia complex. You can use hose-end sprayers to target air plants that are high up in the trees. . 

How To Grow Air Plants

Air plant seeds travel by air and some land on trees. This is how most air plants grow in the wild. If no air plants are growing outdoors, and you wish to grow air plants on your trees, you can mount them.

Ensure you choose a tree that doesn’t get direct sunlight and take the following steps: 

  1. Apply a little silicone to the branch you have chosen for the air plants. 
  2. Sit the air plants over the silicone, ensuring they make firm contact with the branch. You can also dab hot glue on the silicone to melt it so that the air plant can stick easily. However, give the hot glue a few seconds to cool before using it on the silicone. Otherwise, it will burn the leaves. As the silicone cures, the plant will stick to the branch. 
  3. Place some air plants at the base to hide the glue or silicone. Ensure you use a few plants because they can hold water, resulting in rot. Also avoid crowding the plants on the trees. As they grow, they will fill up the branch so if you plant too many air plants, you will wear the branch down with weight when the plants grow bigger.  

Ideal Growing Conditions for Air Plants

Air plants that grow on their own tend to thrive better than those intentionally planted. This is because the plants pick the perfect tree and spot to grow. The following conditions are ideal if you wish to grow air plants indoors and outdoors.

  • Bright, indirect sunlight. If growing air plants indoors, place them close to the east, west, or south window. You can also grow them under fluorescent tubes. 
  • Some air plant varieties do well in environments with near-freezing temperatures. However, most do well in temperatures between 70°F – 85°F (21°C – 29°C). 
  • High humidity is a plus because air plants will benefit immensely. They will absorb air nutrients more readily when the humidity is high.
  • Use a mister to water the air plants two to four times a week. If your environment has low humidity or is too dry, mist the air plants daily. When watering the plants, make sure they are saturated so that they can go for a few days without water. 
  • Feed the air plants at least once a month using diluted low-copper fertilizer. Use at least ¼ of the recommended strength. 

Most air plant species have thin, stiff leaves with scales while the flowers are less than 2 inches (5.08 cm) big. Since they attach themselves to just about anything, you can grow them anywhere you wish. For example, you may use glass bowls, pieces of cork, shells, or even dry pebbles in a dish.  

When choosing the air plants to grow, getting those native to your area is best. Avoid harvesting air plants from the wild and bringing them to your home. Some contain pests, like the bromeliad weevil, which can be invasive. 

This video illustrates signs that show your air plants need water. 

Benefits of Air Plants

Although some air plants, like the ball moss, attach themselves to trees without help, they have some benefits. And since we have established they don’t kill trees, here are reasons why you should leave air plants on your trees.

  • Air plants are not toxic. Your pets and children are safe playing around a tree with air plants. Even if the pets nibble on them, the damage will be on the air plants, not your pets. Besides, they don’t trigger allergies. 
  • Air plants purify the air. They release oxygen at night, so they reduce carbon dioxide emissions, especially when you grow them indoors. 
  • They reduce dust, bacteria, mold, and heavy metals in the air. Air plants also trap pollen and improve the air quality for people who struggle to breathe because of pollen.
  • Air plants can be decorative. You can use them to enhance your landscape and interior decor. You can also use air plants to hide dead, unsightly trees. 
  • They are low maintenance. They don’t require you to do anything to maintain them. 


Air plants may thrive on weakened tree branches, but they are not responsible for destroying trees. However, trees remain vulnerable to air plants that develop thick growth. The heavier the air plants become, the tighter they hold onto trees for extra support. Sometimes, this grip affects the circulation of water and nutrients in the tree. However, the damage may not be enough to kill a healthy tree.

Alexander Picot

Alexander Picot is the principal creator of TheGrowingLeaf.com, a website dedicated to gardening tips. Inspired by his mother’s love of gardening, Alex has a passion for taking care of plants and turning backyards into feel-good places and loves to share his experience with the rest of the world.

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