I recently did a presentation on light and houseplants. I told the audience that all tillandsias need very bright light. A young man, Raymond Carter, @mustybooks on Instagram, pointed out to me that many of the greener, smoother leaved tillandsias need less light than others. He made me think about my statement. (He recently graduated with a two year degree from Longwood Gardens in PA and has done studies on tillandsias. He was delightful and I am glad I had time to talk to him after my presentation.) What he said is true but for the most part, in our homes, tillandsias need more light than many people are supplying them with. It also seems that watering and caring for tillandsias is a mystery to many. So lets take the mystery out of how to water and care for tillandsia.
Two kinds of tillandsias
There are a couple of different kinds of tillandsias. There are xeric and mesic types. The mesic types typically have smooth or smoother leaves than xeric types, and their color is more green than silver. You can see in the picture below a silver tectorum in the back with large trichomes and the smooth leaf of the butzii tillandsia with no obvious trichomes in the front.
What are trichomes?
They are the mechanisms with which the air plants collect and store their water. The larger, more obvious the trichomes, the more water they can hold and the less rain and moisture the plant receives. They also recieve very high light. These large trichomes allow them to hold water for a longer period than the smoother leaves with smaller trichomes such as the one on the butzii shown in front of it. The butzi is in an area that receives more rain or dew and so does not need to store water and in fact would rot if it had those large trichomes in its environment.
As you can see below, there are many types of tillandsias. Silver ones, green ones, smooth ones, thin leaved grassy types, and thick leaved ones. How to know how and when to water?
How do I water the different types?
No mater the type of tillandsia, I water mine the same. I throw them in a sink full of water and let them soak for at least 1/2 hour and sometimes much longer. It depends on whether I forget they are soaking or not. It won’t hurt them to even soak for a day or over night.
The key is, I may not soak the xeric ones again for two to three weeks. The mesic ones will be watered again next week. It also depends on the amount of light you have them in. Mine are all in bright light. The lower the light, the less water the plant is using. None of mine are in what I would call low light. They are in medium to bright light and the xeric ones are in the south window with full sun.
The xerographica and tectorum above are silver, the xerographica has thick, leathery leaves, and the tectorum has huge trichomes. I know I need to water these much less often than their green, thin leaved counterparts. Yet, I still water them the same by soaking in the sink.
The tillandsias above have bulbous bottoms and therefore hold more water. Because of that, I make sure I always shake them out and drain them upside down for a long time. I do that with all my air plants, but let the bulbous ones dry longer. I also typically only water the bulbous ones with obvious trichomes every two to three weeks the same as the xerographica and tomentosa. The seleriana below is one I don’t water as often because in the past, I have rotted them. If the water sits in the bulbous part and the light isn’t sufficient, they will rot as the water isn’t being used. Believe me. It is so upsetting as these larger tillandsia come with a larger price. As you can see below, the seleriana has a baby or pup. Read about those here.
You can see the obvious trichomes on these plants below, plus the caput-medusa and puruinosa are also bulbous types so need to be watered less often.
These tillandsias are either smooth leaved, usually dark to light green, and can be thin-leaved like the Tillandsia andreana below. They grow in places with more rain or dew and so are more used to being wet and therefore do not have a lot of obvious trichomes. They don’t need as many of them to hold water, as moisture is always available.
Thin leaved or grassy types
The tillandsias above have thin leaves and are more grassy like. They will need water more often as they do not have a lot of water holding capacity. I may soak them once a week and mist them, too. I keep these types in glass globes so that helps keep the moisture up. They aren’t completely enclosed but the humidity is higher.
The bulbosa and butzii are do have smooth leaves are are dark green in color, so I soak them once a week, but make sure the bulbous part is well drained or I may not always soak the bulbous part, leaning it against the sink edge with only the leaves in the water.
The key is light
I think the key is good light. The silver xeric ones definitely need more light and I always make sure they are in a south or west window. The mesic ones can take less light but I still give them good bright light. My west windows are full of them. Many are hanging over the kitchen sink so they get plenty of humidity as I still do dishes by hand and cooking also raises the humidity.
So, if you read that all your plants need is “air” or occasional misting, do not believe it. They also can not be placed in a dark place for lengthy period of time. If you want to move them around when company is coming or for short periods of time for decoration, that is fine. But they need to be in bright light so move them back to the light when you are done hosting.
I hope this dispelled some myths about how to water and care for tillandsia and was helpful to you.
Let me know in the comments.
Pin this picture below to help you remember.