Watering Air Plants. What is the Proper Way? Is it Misting?

by | Jun 11, 2019 | 6 comments

Watering air plants. It is a bit controversial. What is the proper way? Is it misting?

I recently did a presentation on light and houseplants. I told the audience that all tillandsias need bright light to full sun. Someone pointed out that many of the greener tillandsias need less light than others. He made me think about my statement.

What he said is true but for the most part, tillandsias need more light than people are supplying. Watering and caring for tillandsias is a mystery to many. So let’s take the mystery out of how to water and care for tillandsia.

Two kinds of air plants

There are different kinds of tillandsias or air plants. There are xeric and mesic types.

The mesic types have 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. There is also the smooth leaf of the Tillandsia butzii with no obvious trichomes.

Thricomes on air plants
Tectorum with butzii in front. The difference is obvious.

What are trichomes?

They are the mechanisms by which the air plants collect and store their water.

The larger, more obvious the trichomes, the more water they can hold. So, the plant can survive with less rain and moisture. They also live in high light.

The large trichomes allow them to hold water for a long period. The butzii is in an area that receives more rain or dew and doesn’t need to store water. It 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 air plants

Air plant collection
There are so many different forms of tillandsia

How to water air plants?

No matter the type, I water air plants the same. I throw them in a sink full of water and let them soak for at least 1/2 hour. It depends on whether I forget they are soaking or not. It won’t hurt them to soak for a day or over night.

Watering air plants
Tillandsias soaking in sink

The key to watering xeric air plants

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.

xeric air plants
Tillandsia xerographica on left, tectorum on right are xeric tillandsias

The Tillandsia xerographica and Tillandsia tectorum above are silver because of trichomes. The xerographica has thick, leathery leaves, and the tectorum has huge trichomes.

I know I need to water these less often than their green, thin leaved counterparts. Yet, I still water these air plants the same by soaking in the sink.

watering bulbous air plants
Bulbous or pot types of tillandsia that hold water in their bases

Watering bulbous air plants

The tillandsias above have bulbous bottoms and so 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 only water the bulbous ones with obvious trichomes every two to three weeks. The seleriana below is one I don’t water as often because, in the past, I have rotted it.

If the water sits in the bulbous part and there isn’t enough light, it will rot. There will be too much water they can’t use. 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 bulbous types. They will need watered less often.

Watering mesic air plants

Mesic tillandsias are smooth-leaved, usually darker green. They can be thin-leaved like the Tillandsia andreana below.

They grow in places with more rain or dew and so are often wet and so do not have a lot of obvious trichomes. They don’t need as many of them to hold water, as moisture is always available.

tillandsia andreana
Tillandsia andreana
thin-leaved tillandsias
Grassy types of tillandsia

Watering 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 Tillandsia bulbosa and butzii have smooth leaves and are dark green in color, so I soak them once a week. Make sure the bulbous part is well drained.

I don’t always soak the bulbous part, leaning it against the sink edge with only the leaves in the water.

The key is light

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.

Dispelling myths about watering air plants

So, if you read that all your plants need is “air” or occasional misting, do not believe it.

They also need plenty of light. If you want to move them around when company is coming or for short periods of time for decoration, that is fine. But when you are done hosting, move them back to a bright light area.

I hope this dispelled some myths about watering air plants and was helpful to you.

Let me know in the comments.

Have a great week, houseplant friends!

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How to water tillandsias

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6 Comments

  1. Lucy

    How do they fare with artificial light? We have planter tiles in our kitchen back splash and I have several types of air plants in them. They have only been there a couple of weeks. They get lots of light from the bright under cupboard lighting.

    Reply
    • Lisa Steinkopf

      Hi Lucy,
      I didn’t go into that, but a lot of my tillandsia are living under my under counter lights! Mine are doing fine there. Thanks for asking! Mine are old school aquarium plant lights in 18″ fixtures.

      Reply
  2. kylo Succapunch.com

    Great tips for keeping Tillandsia healthy. I think it’s also important to note that when you receive a new air plant, perhaps in the mail, you’ll want to soak it as soon as you get it. Most of the time they have been in shipping for days to a week or more and need a fresh start. This also resets the clock so you can know when they were last watered.

    Reply
    • Lisa Steinkopf

      That is a good idea, Kylo. I haven’t bought any through the mail, so that is a great point. Thanks!

      Reply
  3. Stephanie

    Great tips!! From your experience, if you start to notice rot on the bigger xerographicas, are there any steps you can take to reverse or prevent further rotting?

    Also, my apartment get so hot in the winters and i read that misting them may be appropriate if there’s not enough humidity. Does misting alone work?

    Reply
    • Lisa Steinkopf

      If they start rotting, usually it is too late. They will just fall apart if the middle rots. I don’t water my xerographicas as often as I do my other tillandsias. The thicker the leaves and more gray the color, the less water they need. And they need as much light as you can give them. If they are in too low light you are setting yourself up for failure as they will rot with too much water and not enough light. I may mist between soaking, but as a rule, I don’t. Lisa

      Reply

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