Ask four different experts about proper Tillandsia watering, and don’t be surprised to hear five different answers. You might hear that misting air plants does absolutely nothing. You might be told to soak them for one hour, or twelve hours, or overnight. You might hear that soaking air plants upside-down is absolutely necessary. Which of these are true? The answer, of course, is it depends. Proper watering will account for many variables. Tillandsia species, location, plant age, climate, season, and more all significantly affect the need for water. Proper, healthy watering is not difficult to learn or to do, but overwatering and underwatering both are the surest ways to kill a Tillandsia. Proper watering is best tackled with an educated approach. By remembering the basics, by understanding the species, and by relying on experience and experimentation, it is possible to develop a healthy watering program specifically tailored to your own personal situation.
Adhering to the basics of Tillandsia watering should be the foundation of your personal watering program. The most basic idea is that (pretty much) all Tillandsia need external water, unless you live in your plants’ natural habitat. Secondly, and just as important- it is critical to let all Tillandsia dry completely before watering them again to avoid rot. As a general rule, a once-per-week soak (completely submerge the Tillandsia) for between 30 minutes and one hour is a perfect starter schedule. Supplemental misting of the plants is optional but it should not be the primary water source- Tillandsia need time to soak up and store as much water as possible. As basic rules, xeric Tillandsia require less water, all Tillandsia require less water in the winter, and water amounts should complement the amount of light and heat the plants are receiving. Those in hotter, drier climates may find that once-per-week soaks are insufficient, especially during the summer, and adjust their watering programs accordingly. Other basic rules tell us that purified water is generally better than tap water (which could be toxic), and water with a tiny-bit of fertilizer mixed in is better than completely pure water. Collected rainwater is an excellent source of water. Tillandsia developing brownish leaf tips would generally benefit from more frequent waterings, and Tillandsia flowers should generally not get wet. Clumps of Tillandsia require water for all of its surfaces (plants), and may be more susceptible to rot. Never forget that watering and drying go hand-in-hand. Use a fan to dry air plants, and let them dry upside-down for a few hours to avoid rot. Sticking to the basics, create your own personalized watering program, and learn to recognize the needs of specific species.
Knowing and understanding your Tillandsia species are key to proper, healthy watering. Some air plants (ones with bulbous shapes, in particular) could benefit from being soaked upside-down, to minimize the chance of water being trapped within and therefore rotting. Some species are more or less tolerant of overwatering or underwatering. T. tectorum, a desert air plant, is easily overwatered, which can lead to an unnatural appearance or death. T. xerographica, another desert air plant, responds fairly well to regular waterings, which it typically wouldn't see in nature. As a very general rule, species with greener, thinner leaves enjoy a little more water, and species with grayer, thicker leaves enjoy relatively less. Knowing the species can help us greatly with watering. Some species will wrinkle and shrink when thirsty (T. stricta) and others may be wrinkly regardless of moisture (T. argentina). Each species has their own quirks with regards to water, and knowing them is as easy as paying attention to your collection before and after watering.
By adhering to the basics and knowing the species, a personal water program can be created, but experience and experimentation is where is it adjusted and perfected. Don’t be afraid to experiment! You may find that ‘dunking’ your plants for five seconds everyday is better for your situation than weekly soaks. You may find that you can water all your plants on the same schedule, no problem; or you may prefer to split your plants into groups for waterings. Why not soak your plants in the fishtank? Eventually, you may find that you have underwatered an air plant, and it has turned crunchy, or you may have overwatered one, and the core turned brown and mushy. Don’t take it too hard- even the most experienced growers have killed Tillandsia in these ways and more. The important thing is to hopefully learn a lesson from that crunchy tilly, and add it to your experience.
While creating a personalized Tillandsia watering program may seem complicated by many variables, by sticking to the basics, knowing your species, and relying on your experience and experimentation, healthy watering will become automatic. Don’t forget- If your plants are growing, you’re probably doing it correctly!