Updated date:

How to Properly Water Air Plants

Jennifer is an environmentalist from Ohio. She is passionate about advocating for the planet and wildlife through gardening and education.

How to Properly Water Air Plants

How to Properly Water Air Plants

What are Air Plants?

Air plants, or tillandsia, are a unique type of plant that require no soil to grow. Instead, these plants take in moisture from the air through special hair-like structures called trichomes on their leaves. Air plants are epiphytes, which means that they are found in the wild growing on other plants. Instead of using their roots to absorb water and nutrients from the soil like most plants, tilandsias use their roots to attach to trees high in the humid rainforest canopy. Because your home is likely much less humid than their native environment, they do still need to be watered occasionally. There are several methods that are often used for watering these plants including misting, dunking, and soaking. This article will tell you how and when to use each method.

Air plants sitting on seashells.

Air plants sitting on seashells.

How Do Air Plants Absorb Water Without Soil?

Unlike most plants, air plants do not use their roots to absorb water and nutrients. These plants are specially evolved to grow on other plants high in the rainforest canopy, rather than in soil. Because of this, they have adapted to use their root to anchor themselves to their host plants, far above the soil. Because they don’t use their roots for nutrition, is won’t harm the plant if you decide to trim off the roots for aesthetic reasons.

Since their roots no longer serve the function of absorbing water and nutrients from soil, they have evolved specialized cells in their leaves to take in water and nutrients from the humid air around them. These silvery hair-like organs on their leaves are called trichomes and they serve the same purpose as roots in other plants.

Air plants at the Cleveland Botanical Garden.

Air plants at the Cleveland Botanical Garden.

What Kind of Water Do Air Plants Like?

Air plants prefer rainwater or filtered tap water. You should not use distilled water because it lacks minerals that the air plants need. You also should avoid using unfiltered tap water, because the chlorine in it can harm the plants. If you don’t have a water filter, let the water sit out for 24 hours before using it to water your air plants.

Mist air plants with a small spray bottle between soakings.

Mist air plants with a small spray bottle between soakings.

Misting

In most cases, you should not rely on misting alone to water your air plants, though you can use misting in between regular soakings. Use a spray bottle filled with filtered water or rainwater to lightly spray the air plant’s leaves. Try not to get too much water in the spaces between the leaves at the base of the plant, as trapped moisture could eventually lead to rot, causing your plant to fall apart. Mist your air plant every few days between soakings, depending on how dry or humid the air is in your house.

Unless you live in a very humid environment similar to your plant’s native rainforest, you should not rely solely on misting to water your air plant. It needs to be thoroughly soaked every now and then to meet its watering requirements.

Soaking air plants in a bowl of filtered water.

Soaking air plants in a bowl of filtered water.

Soaking

Soaking is the best method for watering air plants to make sure they remain properly hydrated. To do this, simply fill a bowl with room-temperature filtered tap water or collected rainwater. Use a bowl that is deep enough to fill with enough water to fully submerge your plant.

The length of time you need to let your air plants soaks depends on how humid your home is. If their air is very humid, you may only need to soak your air plants for about 20-30 minutes. If it is very dry, they may need to stay submerged for as long as 4 hours. I usually let mine soak for about an hour or so.

Dunking an air plant under the sink faucet.

Dunking an air plant under the sink faucet.

Dunking

If you are in a hurry and don’t have time to properly soak your air plant, it is okay to quickly dunk it in water every once in a while (as long as you do sometimes allow it to soak). There are a couple of quick and easy options for dunking your air plants for an express watering.

The first option is to hold the plant upside down under the sink faucet. Only use this option if you have an attached water filter, as chlorine can harm air plants. Simply hold it under the running water for a few seconds to give it a quick watering. If your air plant is glued onto something, such as a piece of driftwood (a commonly sold air plant arrangement), you may have to use this method exclusively (or misting, depending on the arrangement) if the arrangement cannot be fully submerged.

The other quick option is to quickly dunk it in a bowl of water, much like you would if you were going to give it a proper soak. The only difference is you hold it under water for a few seconds, then set it aside upside down to dry. Do this if you are in a hurry and won’t be able to come back to remove the plant from the water in an hour or so.

Air plants drying after being watered.

Air plants drying after being watered.

Drying Air Plants After Watering

Once your air plants have been properly soaked, it is vitally important that they be allowed to dry completely. Sit your just-watered air plants upside down to dry in an area that has plenty of airflow (I like to then use the leftover water to water other plants). Letting them dry upside down ensures that moisture does not get trapped at the base of the leaves. Trapped water here can cause the plant to rot and fall apart, so it is very important that the plant be allowed to dry fully before being returned to is normal location. Let the air plant dry for 4-8 hours, or until it is completely dry.

Common Watering Mistakes with Air Plants

It is a common misconception that air plants get all the water they need from the air, so many new air plant owners neglect to provide the plants with any additional water. Since the air in most of our homes is so much dryer than in the native habitat where air plants are found in the wild, they need quite a bit of additional water.

On the other end of the spectrum, other air plant owners are also under the mistaken assumption that air plants need to be constantly kept damp by being placed on moist substrate, such as damp sphagnum moss in a terrarium. This is far too much moisture and will quickly lead to rot. Air plants do best when kept on dry displays, such as on top of a seashell or on rocks, and watered regularly, but allowed to dry completely between waterings.

Close-up of air plants.

Close-up of air plants.

Common Air Plant Problems Related to Watering, and How to Correct Them

Underwatering and overwatering can cause air plants to show signs of distress and become unhealthy. An underwatered, thirsty air plant may display brown tips that might even feel crispy to the touch. A thirsty air plant’s leaves may also show a more pronounced concave shape than usual. If your air plant is showing signs of being underwatered, give it a good soaking immediately.

An overwatered air plant is much more difficult to fix. If an air plant is overwatered, it may start to turn brown or even black at its base and start to feel squishy and the bottom leaves may begin to fall off. This means that the plant has begun to rot. This frequently happens when air plants aren’t allowed to dry out fully after being watered, or are left sitting in water for too long. If it is still in the very early stages and hasn’t completely fallen apart, you may still be able to save it. Remove soggy leaves that have started to come loose and make sure the air plant is in a dry location with very good air flow. If its current location has restricted airflow, such as in a terrarium, simply remove the plant from the terrarium and move it to a more ventilated space. If the plant has already completely fallen apart, it is a lost cause. Be sure to follow the properly watering instructions for your next air plant.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Jennifer Wilber

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 22, 2021:

Jennifer, this is an interesting read. Though I am curious of such plants when I saw them on parent hosts. Methought they take nutrients from the host. Thanks for the read.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 21, 2021:

Jennifer, this is an interesting read. Though I am curious of such plants when I saw them on parent hosts. Methought they take nutrients from the host. Thanks for the read.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 21, 2021:

We find all kinds of air plants outdoors in Houston. I have never tried bringing one inside our home. Thanks for the tips on keeping they hydrated indoors.

Related Articles