Air Plants - Tillandsia

Information about air plants care, watering, lighting, temperature & fertilizing.

Air Plants Care

Tillandsia Ionantha ( Mexican ) Mexico
Ionantha ( Mexican ) Mexico

In this section we are going to try and give you basics on how to care for you plant. It should not be taken as gospel on how to care for all species of Tillandsia as some of them are very specialized, but it should work well for most of the common ones that you are likely to find for commercial sale.

It is split up in to the following 4 sections :-

  1. Watering
  2. Lighting
  3. Temperature
  4. Fertilizing


One of the most common things we hear people say is " I had one of these plants once but it died ", the first thing we ask is " How were you watering it ? "

Watering is one of the most important aspects of succeeding with Tillandsias, and one of the most misunderstood. Because their common name is Air Plants people tend to think of these plants as needing little or no water (as living on air).  This is the biggest mistake you can make.  Tillandsias NEED water, although they can survive for long periods of drought, they are NOT GROWING and certainly not thriving in these conditions, they are going dormant and just trying to survive, and will eventually die if water is scarce for too long, though its amazing how long they'll "hang in there" with very little water.

Now having said that, your plant will also rot and die if left wet for too long..............
Basically this means your plant wants water, but needs to dry out completely before being watered again. Plants should be given enough light and air circulation to dry in no longer than 4 hours after watering. It's best to water your plants in the morning so they dry by nightfall.

Humidity is NOT a source of water for your plant. Tillandsias can only obtain their water if it is sat on their leaves, in nature through dew, fog and rain. Humidity only delays the drying process. Tillandsias are covered in suction scales (trichomes) which capture moisture, these scales automatically close when your plant has enough moisture. Get to know your plant, handle the leaves, after watering the leaves will feel stiff and full of water, when in need of water they will be softer to the touch and the plant will be lighter in color.  Dehydration can be noticed by flaccid, wrinkled or rolled leaves.

Water Quality

Generally speaking water quality is not important to Tillandsias, they do not tend to show water spots and are basically only susceptible to pH8 or higher, or too much salt. Artificially softened water has too much sodium (salt) for Tillandsias and should not be used as it will slowly cause die back. Distilled water is too pure and will actually pull nutrients out of the plant tissue causing death, NEVER use distilled water. Tillandsia like moving air not closed stuffy conditions.

Watering Schedule

Your plant needs to be watered regularly, at least 2 to 3 times per week. Misting is generally not sufficient even if done daily, they need to be watered (underneath as well as on top) to the point of runoff as though they've just gone through a rain storm, AT LEAST twice a week. The easiest way to achieve this is to actually immerse the whole plant in the sink or a bucket if possible, if not, use a hose or the kitchen faucet to totally wet your plant. Your plant will also appreciate a good soaking for several hours every one to two weeks (although never submerge the blooming flower for more than a few seconds, or the petals will dissolve, of course if you're going away for several weeks it is more important to give your plant sufficient water, than to the preserving of  the bloom). In extremely dry conditions, or in the house or office with air conditioning or heating going, your plant may require more water, if your plant looks dry (check in the leaf sheaths, and the base of the plant) you could water daily if required, as long as the plant dries out before being watered again, you will not cause harm to the plant (there are exceptions to this rule, if you've purchased a different care plant you should have been informed). Shake out any excess water from your plant container, don't forget your plant wants to dry out by nightfall, not to be left sat in water. Shake off any excess water from fleshy plants. Give thin leaf varieties an extra spray on their tips as they dry out faster.

If totally confused about whether or not to water, pull at an outside leaf,  if it comes off easily it doesn't need water, if its tough to pull off it needs watering. ( NOTE :- Please don't do this too often or you wont have much of a plant left. )

Reviving a neglected plant

If you have a plant that's been neglected, don't throw it away if there's any green left anywhere on the plant. Instead immerse your plant in water up to a maximum of 12 hours and for another 4 hours 2 or 3 days later, then resume a GOOD watering cycle, quite often the plant will recover, and even though you will have leaf damage your plant should still produce pups for you.  Look after the pups better.


If you are going on a short vacation (under one month). Soak your plant for 4 hours 3 days before you go then soak again for 12 hours immediately before you leave, place the plant in a shady (not dark) spot and go ENJOY your vacation.  Upon returning your plant will show a little leaf damage and will look dehydrated, immediately soak for 12 hours and for another 4 hours 2 or 3 days later, then resume normal watering, your plant should start to revive several hours after immersion. Your plant just went dormant while you were on vacation, given good water and light it will wake up again.

If your are going for several months. In the frost free months place your plant outside where your sprinkler system will water it for you (be careful to place in a light or medium shade area, not under bushes where it is deep shade.) If you have nowhere like this, use an old umbrella to form a mini shade house (don't use a black umbrella). We grow all our plants in Florida and are gone from Easter to Halloween. We leave our plants under 50% shade cloth and use a "Mr Mister" (very cheap from Lowes) and a battery operated "Rainmaker" timer to water the plants for us, so far we have never had any problems, the batteries last the whole time we're away, the plants get watered, and we don't need anyone else to help, and when we get back we've got LOTS more plants than when we left.


Adequate light is the second most important factor in growing a strong healthy plant, water being the first.

Give your plant as bright a light as you can, without causing burning. Indoors we recommend no further than 10 feet from a window or skylight. Outdoors under a tree, carport, patio or shade cloth would be ideal. Partial sun for an hour or so in the morning or evening should be okay, but you should avoid all day direct sun.

Be careful of placing directly in south facing windows as the amplified heat may cause excessive drying of the plant and burning (good air  circulation i.e. the window open to conduct the heat away from the plant should stop this problem).

In Offices fluorescent lighting will normally provides the proper color range for good plant growth, this can always be supplemented  with a desk lamp if necessary.

If your plant looses its color after blooming, this is natural, all its energy is now going into producing pups. If your plant (especially ionanthas) looses its color before blooming its not getting sufficient light, move to a lighter location.

Having said all that remember full sun and partial sun are very different in summer and winter, and the intensity is very different in Michigan than Florida.

For the technical out there here are the numbers. For the non technical skip the next bit so you don't get confused.

Most Tillandsia will grow well at light levels of around 20,000 lux for 12 hours a day. They will grow with better shape and color at levels of 30,000 - 40,000 lux. It is impossible to guess light intensity by eye, so if you don't have a light meter these numbers are of no use to you.

To give you a rough idea of what these numbers mean :-

We live in Florida, in summer around noon we measure around 100,000 lux on a clear day. In the winter we get around 70,000 lux. For growing plants outdoors this means, in the summer we use a 60% shade cloth, in the winter we use a 40% shade cloth, that way we get around 40,000 lux that we are aiming for.


Tillandsias are tolerant of a wide range of temperatures from near freezing in winter to over 100F in summer. Optimum temperature range for tillandsias is 50 - 90 degrees F with a 10 degree drop at night. Most will survive a light frost but will have some leaf damage, but should still produce pups for you. A frost for more than a few hours will kill your plant.


Fertilizing Tillandsia is not really necessary, but it will result in faster growth, better flowers and more pups. When fertilizing your plant be very careful not to over do it, Tillandsias are very susceptible to over fertilization. Over fertilizing or using the wrong kind of fertilizer is a very good way to kill your plant.

So for those of you that want EXTRA HAPPY plants here's the info :-

Use a good WATER SOLUBLE fertilizer at 1/4 the strength recommended on the label, and use it only once a month.

(N) Nitrogen - should be in the form of ammonium or nitrate NOT UREA ( Urea needs the bacteria in soil to break it down, and you have no soil, hence not a good idea.) Can also build-up and cause damage.

(P)  Phosphorus - an excess is not harmful and helps combat an excess of Nitrogen.

(K) Potassium - in large amounts - excess not harmful.

NO copper, boron or zinc - or minimal quantities under 0.5%  are okay. Most don't say, but choose an acidic fertilizer by choice.

A good mix would be 1-1.5 - 2.0 or 10-15-20 try and keep the nitrogen low in comparison to the P and at least half the K.

Shipping / Transporting

Tillandsias travel and ship well. When shipping, water two days (or a minimum of 24 hours) before shipping, by soaking for several hours, but always make sure your plant is completely dry for the actual shipping, upon arrival give your plants another good soaking to revive them.

Plants that are transported when wet have problems because of the lack of air circulation, and if shipping is delayed or lost, could eventually arrive with rot problems (shiny brown spots). NEVER wrap your plants in plastic bags, wrap in paper to avoid bruising to the plant.

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Tillandsia Ionantha