by Scott James


What's Killing My Air Plants?

Special Considerations To Help Prevent Dying Plants

Although there is no definitive answer to figure out why any one particular air plant died, here is a list of topics to review when reflecting on the conditions and care of your beloved tillandsias.

1. Over & Under Watering

Too much or too little water can kill an air pant. Keeping a plant hydrated is tricky sometimes. Soak your plant for 20-30 minutes, shake it off, and let dry for a couple hours before putting it back into a container. We have had the best luck making our water baths a weekly ritual. A good rule of thumb is to note the condition of the leaves the day after a good soak. The leaves should not be curled or folded, but open and more flat. Shoot for this look after each watering and increase or decrease frequency accordingly so that your air plants look this way the majority of the time. Aeranthos Major is great marker for air plant hydration. This leaves of this species dramatically curl and open depending on the hydration of the plant. The difference is more subtle in smaller species like Ionanthas.

Plants will die from over-watering when they are not allowed to dry out completely for several days between water baths. This often occurs when the air plants are misted with water while situated inside a terrarium or enclosure. The tightness of the enclosure traps moisture which can cause rot on the base of the plants.

2. Exposure to Salts & Chemicals

 Water softener salts may make our skin and hair smooth but it can kill air plants. Have you ever had a house plant where you noticed white crust build-up on the top of the soil after watering it a few time and letting it dry? These are salt deposits and they are especially harmful to air plants. Since air plants have no soil to filter the salts, the salts end up being deposited on the ends of the leaves. Overtime this will suffocate the plant as it prevents the trichomes from absorbing water and nutrients. The chlorines found in some municipal water is also not great for plants and should be avoided if possible. 

The best water to use is rain, well, pond, lake, or non-carbonated mineral water. Although free of harmful salts, store-bought bottled and filtered watered actually has most of the minerals taken out. Bottled water will not harm the plant itself, but watering exclusively with bottled water will starve them from key nutrients if that is all they ever receive.

3. Extreme Heat and Light

Direct sunlight will dehydrate plants quicker. Sitting next to a hot window or a sitting in a hot room will do the same. Occasionally, direct sun can even burn the leaves of the plants. Air plants should not be placed in glass enclosures that receive direct light as the enclosures can get very hot (like a small greenhouse) and the glass also may act as a magnifying glass that can concentrate the sunlight on the leaves, quickly causing them to burn. A good rule of thumb is that most air plants like temperatures that you like. If you wouldn't sit near your window for several hours at a time because you would be too hot then probably your air plant won't like it either. Most tillandsia prefer temperatures in the 55-85 degree range.

That being said, several species of air plants are accustomed to hot temperatures in their natural environment. Xeric plants like Xerographica, Harisii, and Stricta are all found in hotter lowland climates. As long as water is provided, these species can do well in hot temperatures and brighter spaces. Generally, the warmer the temperatures, the more frequent the need for watering.

4. Too Little Light

Air plants require indirect natural light or bright artificial lighting for several hours a day. Air plants displayed in dark inner hallways or dim bathrooms will decline in health and eventually die. Office settings normally provide sufficient light since the lights are on consistently for several hours a day. If the space is bright enough for other common houseplants like potho vines, spider plants and philodendrons, then you should have no problem with tillandsias.

5. Cold

Although many species of air plants grow naturally at high elevations, it is very rare that see frost or freezing temperatures. Most air plants cannot tolerate frost or temperatures below 32 degrees. The main exceptions to these rules are Spanish Moss and the several types of ball moss which are found naturally from Texas to Florida and up into coastal Virginia. Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) can withstand nights in the teens and twenties Fahrenheit and even a couple days a year where the high doesn't get above freezing. However, for most air plants, and especially the ones that are commercially available, this would be death sentence.

In the winter, we continue to offer our 30 Day Guarantee for plants that arrive DOA due to the cold. We currently do not use heat packs to the ship the plants since they will often run out and are not very effective at the end of their life cycle when they are needed most. In addition, we have found that they can actually burn the plants. The best bet for ordering plants during the winter is to have them sent to wherever you are when mail is delivered (Your place of work or school, for example) to limit their exposure to the cold.

If your air plants are outdoors only for the warm season, we would recommend bringing them indoors when the nights start falling below 45 degrees. All air plants can do great indoors. During the winter, especially at the higher latitudes, there are some important care considerations to review for the winter months. Here is our separate blog that details Winter Care For Air Plants.

6. Fertilizer Burn

Here at the Air Plant Shop, we sell a special mixture of Grow More Fertilizer that was specially formulated for air plants and bromeliads. The dilution rate for the fertilizer is very high, only a one-quarter teaspoon of plant food per gallon of water is required. It may seem like a very small amount, but air plants are quite sensitive due to them absorbing 100% of water and nutrients through their leaves. We recommend using the fertilizer water to soak your plants once per month. In general, this will be every fourth soaking.

Higher concentrations of fertilizer in the water and more frequent fertilizing may burn your air plants. For those who prefer the misting method of watering, you may wish to also add the fertilizing to this regime. However, it is important that you are very careful about mixing and diluting the fertilizer completely (at same one-quarter teaspoon per gallon of water) before spraying the plants.

7. Moisture & Poor Air Circulation

Most air plants are from arid deserts or cool, dry, and windy highlands. Some air plants like very high humidity but not all. After soaking your plants make sure they get dry fast. We like to put them under a ceiling fan when drying. That will help avoid moist bases that are susceptible to root rot. If you mist or spray your plants for watering, we still recommend that you take them out of their enclosures for watering. Spanish Moss should be hung somewhere where it is surrounded by air. It will slowly brown if placed flush against a wall or used as stuffing inside a terrarium globe.

8. Their Natural Life Cycle

Nothing lasts forever and that also applies to air plants. The life cycle of air plants includes growth, blooming, and reproduction by the pups and seedlings. Although blooming is considered one of the peaks of most air plants's lives, it is not always downhill from there. We have had smaller air plants like Ionanthas bloom for us a couple of times per year. Eventually, however, the mother plant will put most of her energy into producing small offsets. By the time the mother plant has completely given up, the offsets will be to the size of the mother, and the cycle continues. Some species also seem to prefer making pups before the mother plant has bloomed, so a pupping plant does not necessarily mean that you misted the mother plant's bloom! When an air plant starts to produce babies, you have a couple of options: Division of the new air plants or to let the air plants naturally clump. See our blog about Dividing Air Plant Pups for more information.

Scott James
Scott James

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