A plant that lives in the air and doesn’t require soil must be one tough plant. Plants like orchids, Zebra Plants, and miniature roses need lots of TLC, but an air plant should be hands-off, right? Can you even overwater one?
You can overwater an air plant, but not in the way one would think. An air plant that has been “overwatered” did not receive too much water. Instead, it was not properly dried out. Purple or black at the base of the plant is a sign of rot. This means you need to change how you water.
Taking care of a Tillandsia, or air plant, requires you water them correctly. We’ll explain how to water them and give you a few additional tips so that your tilly stays healthy.
Signs You’re Overwatering Your Air Plant
If your air plant’s roots are dry, you might think the plant needs more water. However, dry roots are not a sign that an air plant needs more water. If you give your air plant water whenever the roots look dried out, it’s because the roots of air plants serve a different purpose than those of soil-based plants.
Instead, the signs of overwatering an air plant can be found at the base of the plant. To explain why that is, we first need to examine the role of roots in a Tillandsias.
What Purpose Do the Air Plant Roots Serve?
When plants that grow in soil receive too much water, they become sick NOT because the roots are rotting but because the roots are suffocating. Roots need oxygen as well as water, and they get oxygen from air pockets and “pores” in the soil. When the soil is waterlogged, then the roots cannot get enough oxygen.
Air plants get oxygen from the air, so they do not need roots to do that. In soil-growing plants, the roots pull nutrients and oxygen from the soil to feed the plant. In air plants, roots provide a different function—keeping the plants attached to the surface on which they are growing.
How Do Air Plants Get Their Moisture?
Your tilly gets its moisture from tiny structures on their leaves called trichomes. Trichomes are hollow structures that act as intermediaries—when moisture comes in contact with them, they swell up as they absorb it. As they swell, they flatten, and this causes the moisture to become trapped inside the leaf. Once trapped, water moves to the mesophyll cells, which are key to photosynthesis.
The trichomes cause the silvery sheen you see on-air plants. As trichomes develop, their cells die and hollow out. This is what allows them to be able to trap the moisture. The number of trichomes on the air plant’s leaves indicates how much moisture they need. A fuzzy air plant with more trichomes can tolerate a drier habitat.
Air plants with smooth leaves have few trichomes. They grow in areas with more moisture, and the increased moisture meant they needed fewer trichomes to catch and trap the water. In any case, understanding that when trichomes absorb water, they flatten and trap the moisture is key to understanding how they can receive too much water.
What Happens When You Overwater an Air Plant?
If you overwater an air plant, you are essentially drowning the leaves. This will lead to leaf rot or fungal diseases.
Problems with Rot
An air plant suffering from rot can have a soft and mushy root that looks brown. Other signs of inner rot include that leaves around the base are coming off. In the worst case, the plant will fall apart. It is often challenging to spot inner rot until the plant suddenly comes apart.
Leaf root is easier to spot when it occurs on the outer leaves. If you spot dark spots spreading along the base of the plant, remove the affected leaf at the base. You might want to clean up and remove leaves that had touched the infected leaf.
Also, pay attention to changes in the color of the leaves. Leaves that are turning yellow could be an indication of leaf rot, as well as leaves that are becoming soft to the touch.
If fungus starts showing up on your air plant, you have been overwatering it. Fungus always indicates there is dampness present in the plant. If you have been over-watering the air plants, you are setting the perfect scene for fungus to thrive. Fungal infections cause the leaves to turn black. Eventually, they will fall off.
The fungus will occur in most cases, due to poor ventilation. If a fungus is present, the leaves of the air plant will start looking stale, lose their luster, and begin to fall out. Also, If the plant looks brown or feels mushy, the fungus is probably present. Fungus growth can be prevented by making sure there’s no excess water hanging out in the plant’s crevices.
Can I Rescue My Air Plant After Overwatering?
Because signs of rot or fungus are difficult to spot until the damage is severe, the best prevention is to water your air plant correctly (which we will discuss in the next section). Removing an infected leaf, as well as any that were touching, will help. Cinnamon, because it is a natural fungicide, might help stop rot or fungus.
How Should I Water My Tilly?
There are two methods for watering an air plant—the spritz and the dunk.
Misting the Air Plant
- Use a spray bottle or a plant mister, like this one I found on Amazon.
- Spritz the entire plant every two or three days.
- Dry the plant on a towel for several hours before returning it to its site, especially if it will go into a terrarium or glass globe.
Soaking the Plant
This is the preferred method. It lets the plant soak up the water. Best of all—you only need to do this once a week.
- Fill a bowl or sink with water.
- Let the air plants float in the water for 20-30 minutes.
- After you remove the plants, turn them upside down to drain excess water from the leaves.
- Again, put the plant on a towel to completely dry before returning it to its site.
You might need to adjust this schedule depending on where your plant is located. Fans tend to dry out the air, so if your plant lives in a room with fans that run frequently, it will need more watering than say a kitchen or other room with activities that generate humidity.
Some air plants need more frequent watering. Leaves that are curling or folding together is one sign that the plants are not receiving enough moisture. Another sign is browning on the outermost leaves.
Other Tips for Air Plant Care
Here are a few additional tips to help your air plant thrive:
- Light. Ideally, you want to give them bright, filtered light. Avoid north-facing windows. If you put yours outside in the summer, avoid frying them by placing them where the sunlight will be filtered.
- Fertilize. This isn’t a requirement, especially if you can occasionally give them a bath in rainwater. Air-plant specific fertilizers, such as Cute Farms Tillandsia found at Amazon, are available if you want to fertilize your plant several times a year. Diluted water-soluble houseplant fertilizers will also work.
- Temperature. Air plants prefer a temperature range between 50-90 degrees. Drafts—either cold or hot—dry them out faster.
Overwatering can kill your air plant. The leaves need time for the moisture to evaporate; otherwise, they will begin to root or attract fungus.
- If the leaves of the plant start falling off easily, changing colors, feeling mushy to the touch, or has a brown ring at the base of a fallen leaf, it’s been overwatered.
- If your plant falls apart in your hand, or the leaves are yellow and mushy, your plant is suffering from plant rot due to overwatering.
- If your plant shows signs of fungus being present, such as the leaves turning black, it’s being overwater. Fungus presents itself when there is consistent dampness.
Once you get the watering right with air plants, you have overcome the biggest challenge to growing them. Take good care of it, and if you wait long enough, it might surprise you with a bloom.