Close this search box.

How to water air plants | Full air plant watering guide

Air plants from the genus Tillandsia are among the most popular indoor plants out there nowadays. Not surprising, as their lack of need for soil and funky looks make them a great addition to the home.

There is a lot of information out there on air plant care, and unfortunately definitely not all of it will actually lead to thriving air plants. These plants are often not as easy to grow as they’re often made out to be and a lot of this is related to watering. So how should you actually water your air plants?

Keep reading to find out more about how to water air plants and background info on why you should water them a certain way. Studying the conditions a plant naturally grows in helps understand how to grow it in the home!

Air plants in the wild

When trying to figure out how to water a plant, it’s always good to have a look at the environment it naturally grows in. After all, it will have specialized to survive in this habitat, so our best shot at indoor success is to try and mimic it as best as we can.

Bromeliads from the Tillandsia genus are naturally found in the Americas. They occur as far north as the southern United States (Florida, Texas) and as far south as Argentina. Here, they grow in wildly varying habitats, from harsh mountain slopes to lush forests!

What has made them so successful is their ability to cling to surfaces where soil is not or barely present: the majority are epiphytes. From these spots they use their specialized leaves rather than their roots to absorb moisture.

Fingerrs holding air plant on white background | Guide to how to water air plants

Air plant watering: trichomes

Not all air plants were made equal. As we’ve just discussed, different Tillandsia varieties occur in different locations and as such, each comes with its own watering guidelines. The ones that are used to receiving very little liquid, for example, will need different care from the ones that occur in habitats with plenty of rain. But how do you figure out in which category yours falls?

It’s always good to look up in which kind of habitat your specific Tillandsia species naturally occurs. However, Google is not your only help in this: the plant itself will also tell you a lot about its origins. You can figure them out based on its trichomes, a scale-like layer on air plants’ leaves that allows it to absorb moisture from the air.

You’ll likely have seen that there are greyish and slightly fuzzy air plants out there, but also smooth green ones. And then there’s species like Tillandsia tectorum (pictured below), which is just entirely fluffy all over! So how do we differentiate between them and what does this all actually mean for watering? Let’s clarify this in the next paragraph.

Tillandsia air plants in coconut hanger.

Air plant watering: mesic vs xeric

  • Xeric air plants naturally grow in rather harsh, dry habitats. They are light in color to deflect excess sunlight. You’ll notice the stiffness of their leaves and the fact that they have a dense coverage of trichomes. They don’t have to be watered as often and don’t need extremely high humidity.

    The fluffy Tillandsia tectorum is an extreme example of a xeric air plant that has adapted to its unfriendly natural habitat by evolving very prominent trichomes that can suck every last bit of moisture from the air. Other examples of xeric air plants are the spectacular Tillandsia xerographica, Tillandsia usneoides and Tillandsia caput-medusae. Note their almost fuzzy appearance.
  • Mesic and semi-mesic air plants can be recognized from their darker green leaves and less prominent trichomes. They naturally occur in more humid and slightly darker areas, which is why they don’t have need for all those trichomes nor light-reflecting coloration. In the home, they’ll appreciate more frequent watering than xeric air plants and will also do better in environments that are more humid in general. They’ll appreciate a good soak!

    Examples of (semi-)mesic air plants are the dark green and smooth Tillandsia bulbosa and butzii, as well as the slightly lighter Tillandsia brachycaulos and andreana.
Infographic showing xeric vs. mesic air plants | Guide on how to water air plants

Air plant watering: what to use?

You can use (lukewarm) tap water to water your air plants, especially if it has been treated with a conditioner to remove the chemicals it has been treated with to make it safe to drink. The absolute best option would be natural rainwater, but in urban areas the rainwater can be so polluted it’s unusable to water your plants with.

You can also try water from a creek, pond or even your aquarium: these contain nutrients that help your plant thrive. As a rule of thumb, almost all houseplants love diluted fish poop!

Distilled water can seem like an attractive option since it’s free of any nasties, but since it will also have been stripped of beneficial minerals and nutrients it’s not a good option for air plants at all.

Air plants from the Tillandsia genus soaking in a glass

Air plant watering: spraying, dunking and soaking

Now that we know why different air plants require different amounts of water, let’s move on to the watering methods you can choose from for these soilless plants. All methods can be used for both xeric and mesic air plants and a lot of it depends on personal preference. In any case, there’s a lot of discussion out there still about the best way to water your air plants, which is unsurprising because everyone’s home is different in terms of light, airflow and humidity.

If you’re not sure how often to use the methods described below, again, your Tillandsias will tell you a lot themselves. A thirsty (but not dying) air plant can often be recognized from its tightly curled leaves. Although many species do have some curl to them, they’ll become more tightly coiled.

The leaves will appear thinner, faded in color and won’t stick outwards as much. That all probably sounds very abstract, but you’ll learn to recognize it. If leaves are starting to brown that’s a sign you’re in big trouble and unfortunately you might not always be able to revive the plant.

  • Spraying air plants is the most well-known and probably the most common method out there. Your air plants will definitely not say no to mistings here and there, especially if there’s enough air flow to dry them quickly. However, most Tillandsia enthusiasts find that only misting is not enough to keep their plants happy (unless it’s an extreme xeric like Tillandsia tectorum). Still, you can do it every few days.
  • Dunking air plants simply involves running them under the tap or dunking them in water until they’re soaked. A good option to quickly hydrate them in between longer soaks, especially for the more water-loving mesics. Just don’t overdo it!
  • Soaking air plants in a glass or bucket (or even a bath tub if your collection has really gotten out of hand) is generally considered to be the ideal option to really hydrate them. Again, every home is different and the amount of moisture your plants need depends on their origins, but anything between 20 minutes to up to 4 hours should work.
Air plants on wood with moss.

Air plant watering: drying

In their natural habitats air plants are exposed to wind and open air, meaning they’ll dry off pretty quickly after a rain shower or once the desert fog clears up. In the home that’s a little different, and since these guys are extremely (and I mean extremely) prone to rot, it’s absolutely crucial they dry properly after a watering.

If your home has alright air flow you won’t have to dry your plants manually after a light misting, but anything that leaves them soaked calls for some special care. After soaking or dunking, an easy way to make sure no water gets stuck in the center of your Tillandsia is to put it upside down on a towel for a few hours.

Once it’s fully dry you can return it to its normal spot. You can also run a fan gently next to the plants to speed up the process and really ensure they dry fully.