How to Revive a Dying Air Plant


How to revive a dying air plant

If your air plant is dying and you’re unsure why, then I can assure you that you are not alone! This is a very common problem that I see people have all the time, which I think is because air plants are so unique in their growing requirements that it is very easy to get the growing conditions wrong and end up with a brown, dying air plant.

Not only do I grow air plants at work (I work in a garden center), but I personally love air plants and have grown many of them myself at home, and through trial and error, I have found out what works firsthand and what may cause it to look poorly. I also have the privilege of talking to expert growers in my line of work, so in this article, I aim to share with you all the tips, tricks, and techniques that I learned from the specialists to revive your dying air plants.

Most often, the reason I encounter for a dying air plant is usually because of rot due to water collecting in the crown of the plant.

Air plants need to dry out between each watering. If excess water collects in the crown of the air plant without draining properly, this causes the leaves to turn brown or yellow and feel soft with a dying appearance.

Another cause I see is air plants turning brown at the ends of the leaf and starting to curl if they are not being watered often enough.

Air plants can also scorch a brown/yellow color in too much direct sunlight.

Essentially, we have to remember that air plants start dying if they live in conditions that are contrary to the conditions of their natural environment.

I revive a dying air plant by recreating the conditions of its natural environment with bright indirect light, watering at least twice per week but allowing the air plant to dry before watering again, and ensuring a temperature range of between 65℉ and 85℉.

Keep reading to learn how to pinpoint why your air plant is dying and for my steps to reviving it (Tillandsia)…

Why is My Air Plant Turning Brown on the Ends?

  • Symptoms. Air plant leaves turn brown, dry, and curl at the ends of the leaves.
  • Causes. There is low humidity, underwatering, and possibly too much sun and heat.

My own air plant started to turn brown at the ends because of underwatering. Due to drought stress, the leaves turn brown at the ends and start curling. I learned air plants require generous watering as often as 2 times per week, with the plant fully submerged in lukewarm water to prevent the leaf ends from turning brown.

Underwatering is by far the most significant reason I see for air plants’ leaf tips turning brown and perhaps curling up, but low humidity, too much sun, and excessive heat can also be factors.

Air plants prefer a daytime temperature of between 65 and 85℉ and between 50-65℉.

If the temperature is significantly hotter than the ideal range, then this increases the rate of water loss from the leaves and the air plant’s demand for water, which can result in your air plant’s leaves turning brown.

I find my Air plants can grow in some direct sunlight, if its morning sun but prefer to stay out of the sun during the afternoon in Summer as the intense sunlight can also contribute to the air plant losing too much moisture, which also contributes to the leaves turning brown at the ends and curling.

There are approximately 650 species of air plants (Tillandsia), and to establish the reason for your air plant turning brown at the ends, it is important to understand where your variety of air plants originates.

Air plants are native to hot, dry desert-like climates and grow in rainforests. Where your air plant is from affects how often you should water your plant.

Air plants with darker green leaves on the left is adapted to a rainforest environment whereas the air plant with the silvery green leaves on the right is adapted to a dry climate.
These are my air plants. The Air plants with darker green leaves on the left are adapted to a rainforest environment, whereas the air plants with silvery green leaves on the right are adapted to a dry climate.

I spoke with the specialist growers who gave me a really great way to establish whether your air plant is native to a hot, dry climate or rainforest is by the leaves:

  • Silvery green leaves that look more flattened and often have a fuzzy texture to the leaves originate from dry areas and require less watering, whereas…
  • Dark green leaves that are less scaly and more curved are from rainforests and require watering more frequently and misting every few days.

It is important to note that both types of air plant leaves can turn brown at the ends due to underwatering, but brown leaf ends are far more common in air plants that are native to tropical rainforest conditions.

Whenever anyone asks me about their air plants turning brown, I always ask them, how often are you watering?

If you are watering your air plants less than once a week, this is the reason for the leaves turning brown at the ends.

How I Revive My Air Plants with Brown Leaf Ends

To revive air plants with brown leaf ends, I give them a good soak in lukewarm water to allow the leaves to absorb all the water they require, and I move my air plant to a cooler area protected from direct sunlight to allow the air plant to recover.

  • The first thing I do is submerge my air plant in a basin of water for 10 minutes to help restore the brown leaves. Air plants absorb water through their leaves rather than roots. Submerging your air plant gives the leaves the opportunity to uptake the water they require to alleviate drought stress and revive the brown ends.
  • You need to ensure that the water is lukewarm to avoid shock, and ideally, leave the water overnight to allow chlorine and fluoride to evaporate from the water, which can contribute to the leaf ends turning brown on some more sensitive varieties of air plants.
  • I water my air plant at least twice per week to avoid brown leaf ends. Remember that the optimal watering frequency depends on whether the variety of air plant originated from a rainforest environment (dark green leaves) or an arid environment (silvery, green leaves) but regardless of the origin, if the leaves are turning brown at the tips and curling, you should water them more often. Typically, it is recommended to water air plants with dark green leaves up to 4 times per week, whereas, air plants with silvery green leaves should be watered around twice per week, although this is generic advice, and your watering should be adjusted for your climate and conditions. Basically, you need to do some trial and error to see what works for your air plant in your climate.
  • Suspend your air plant upside down for a few minutes after watering. Trust me, this step is really important. Whilst air plants require relatively frequent watering, they are also susceptible to rot if water pools in the crown of the plant. Place your air plant in a location with some air flow to ensure the air plant can dry between bouts of watering to ensure the optimal balance of moisture.
  • Ensure the air plant is in a room with a temperature range of 65 and 85℉ during the day and 50-65℉ at night. This is the right temperature range for all varieties of air plants. Consider whether sources of indoor heating are drying out your air plant and move it to a cooler location to help the brown ends recover. I had to move mine across to the other side of the room when it occurred to me that it was above a radiator.
  • Move air plants out of direct sunlight in the afternoons during the Summer months. Generally speaking, the dark green leafed varieties of air plants prefer bright indirect light or perhaps some filtered light, and the silvery, green varieties can tolerate more sun. Intense sunlight in the Summer is too much for most air plants, so ideally, find a location with bright, indirect light or morning sun followed by afternoon shade. What I do is locate my rainforest air plants in my bathroom as the first glass provides diffused light and I place my desert air plants in a window with morning sun.
  • Increase the humidity for dark green varieties of air plants by placing them in a bathroom or misting them every few days. Misting the air plant creates a humid micro-climate that emulates the higher humidity conditions of its native tropical rainforest. Just ensure that the water does not collect at the crown of the leaves, as this can cause rot. I found my rainforest air plants grow best in the bathroom, whereas my desert air plants grow best in the morning sun, but I place it near my humidifier to create the right humidity, and my air plant looks great, without brown ends.

Pro tip: If you live in a hard water area or you suspect the chlorine in the water is causing your air plant leaves to turn brown, I recommend that you water with rainwater, or if that is too difficult, what I would do is use bottled water.

Should I Cut the Brown Leaf Tips off Air Plants?

Yes. You can cut off any brown, dried-up leaf tips of air plants with a pair of pruners or scissors if the leaf tip has gone brown and crispy. This helps to restore the appearance of the air plant and stimulate the growth of healthy green leaf tips.

An air plant with brown leaf tips should revive once it has been watered thoroughly, shaded from intense sunlight, and kept at a temperature of 65 and 85℉ to help emulate the conditions of its native environment.

Why is My Air Plant Turning Brown, Yellow, or Black? (Due to Rot)

  • Symptoms. Areas of the air plant can turn brown or black and feel soft, usually around the crown of the plant.
  • Causes. Water pooling at the crown of the plant in the leaves as a result of not allowing the air plant to dry between each bout of watering, not draining the air plant after watering, poor air circulation, and cold temperatures.

The reason for air plants turning brown, yellow, or black is because of rot caused by water pooling in the leaves at the crown of the plant and cold temperatures.

As I stated, you must suspend your air plants upside down and allow them to dry out between bouts of watering to prevent excess moisture from causing the plant to turn brown and rot.

To understand why your air plant is turning brown, yellow, or black, I find it helpful to understand how air plants grow in the wild…

As air plants attach to trees and rocks in their native environment, they are used to well draining conditions and they do not tolerate water standing in their structure usually at the crown of the plant.

Rot is generally avoided in their native environment as they usually grow at an angle (whilst attached to a tree branch) that allows water to drain away from the plant in between rainfall. (A clever adaptation, don’t you think?)

What I find is that the leaves may turn brown, yellow, or black with a soft texture. Generally, it is water that is trapped in the plant after watering that causes rot, but I have seen several other reasons that you need to know about:

  • Excessive misting causes water to pool at the crown of the plant.
  • Not allowing the air plant to dry between each bout of watering.
  • Not suspending your air plant upside down after watering (to allow the water to drain properly)
  • A lack of air circulation helps to dry the leaves after watering.
  • Temperatures colder than 50℉ at night and cooler than 65℉ during the day contribute to rot.

I discovered that air plants typically do not like to be on window sills at night as they can often be too cold in the Winter for the air plant to tolerate.

Also, the leaves may be in contact with the glass of the window, which can be considerably colder than the ambient temperature in the room.

How I Revive Air Plants with Rot…

Air plants that are turning brown and dying due to rot are very difficult to save as the rot spreads through the plant. But what I have done successfully is cut away any rotting parts of the plant with a sharp pair of pruners (if the brown rotting area is relatively localized).

I must caution that you should wipe the blades of your pruners with a cloth soaked in disinfectant between each cut to prevent potentially spreading fungal pathogens from diseased parts of the plant to otherwise healthy growth, then adhere to the best practices of care:

  • Always allow your air plant to dry before watering again. This means suspending the air plant upside down for at least 20 minutes to ensure excess water has drained away from the crown of the plant, where water most often gets trapped and causes rot.
  • Ensure good air circulation to ensure the air plant dries between each watering. As air plants are adapted to growing in exposed areas or high in trees, they prefer some air circulation, which helps them to dry to avoid rot. My air plants like to be located near an open window rather than a stuffy room and can tolerate air currents from air conditioning in the Summer, which can help avoid rot.
  • Suspend your air plant upside down after watering to prevent brown rot. It’s worth me emphasizing that Air plants grow well if they are submerged in water and then allowed to dry for at least 30 minutes, angled upside down to encourage water to run off the plant rather than collect in the leaves at the crown of the air plant.
  • Ensure your air plant is in a room where the temperature does not drop below 50℉ at night. The optimal temperature range is 65℉ to 85℉ during the day and 50℉ to 65℉ at night. Cold temperatures slow down evaporation from the leaves, and frost can cause the air plants to rot and turn black and soft.

Typically it is recommended to water air plants that originate from dry deserts twice per week by running them under the tap (or submerging them as I like to do) and to water air plants from rainforest regions 4 times a week for the optimal balance of watering.

Watering with this soak and dry style of watering provides enough water to prevent the air plant leaf tips from turning brown due to drought and prevents the air plant from developing rot from overwatering. So its all about finding that happy medium!

Specifically, how often you water your air plant can depend on the climate and the level of sun exposure but I must emphasize it is important the air plant feels completely dry before you water it again, rather than staying consistently moist as it is much easier to revive an air plant that is underwatered (with brown leaf tips) then an air plant that is dying of rot.

Why is My Air Plant Turning Brown or Yellow? (Excess Sun Exposure)

  • Symptoms. Air plants scorch brown or yellow.
  • Causes. Excessive sun exposure, with high temperature and low humidity, are contributing factors.

I discovered the reason for one of my air plants turning brown or yellow is often because too much direct sunlight in the Summer causes the air plant to turn a scorched brown. Air plants do require bright light and often prefer sunlight, but intense Summer sun combined with high temperatures causes air plants to turn brown.

Again, we must consider that the most common varieties of air plants originate from either rainforest environments (which typically have dark green leaves) or dry, desert-like environments (which have silvery, green leaves).

I quickly found out that the air plants with naturally dark green leaves, they tend to be more susceptible to scorching to a brown or yellow color in the Summer, particularly if they are in intense direct sunlight in the Summer months.

However, all varieties of air plants can scorch to a brown or yellow color if they are moved from a more shaded location to a location with intense direct sunlight, without time to acclimatize, but of course, it is more common in the rainforest, dark green varieties.

The specialist growers I consulted with warned me that the air plant is more likely to turn brown in the sun if the temperature exceeds 85℉ and the climate is particularly dry.

My Tips for Reviving an Air Plant Turning Brown or Yellow Due to Excess Sun Exposure:

  • Move the air plant to an area with afternoon shade. If the air plant has naturally dark green leaves, then it is more accustomed to having protection from direct light, so locate air plants in bright, indirect sunlight. Silvery, green-leafed varieties of air plants prefer bright, indirect light or morning sun followed by afternoon shade. The key is to avoid the intense afternoon sun in summer to avoid further bleaching the air plants’ leaves.
  • Move your air plant to a room with higher humidity. South-facing window sill is often too hot, too bright, and too low in humidity for air plants, particularly if the air plant has dark green leaves. I like to move my air plants to a bathroom with higher humidity or mist the air plants lightly to recreate a humid micro-climate to which dark green air plants are adapted. Silvery green-leafed air plants typically do not need misting, so it’s more a case of finding the right balance of light.
  • Give your air plants a generous watering. Often, air plants require good watering if they have turned brown from sun scorch, as the sun, low humidity, and high temperatures can dry the air plants out. So I advise placing your in a basin of water for 10 minutes or so for the leaves to uptake the water they require.
  • Ensure the temperature of the room does not exceed 85℉. Consider the micro-climate of the room when locating your air plant. Window sills are often too hot in Summer, so find a cooler area that still has bright light while the air plant is recovering.

These steps should help to prevent any further damage to your air plant, and once you have corrected its environment so that it is more favorable, your air plant should begin to recover.

Some scorched leaves may fall off due to the damage. However, I know it can look bad, but I can assure you this does not necessarily mean the plant is dying. Keep your air plant in the right conditions; new growth should appear if some leaves fall off.

Typically, the individual leaves that are scorched brown do not recover their appearance, but they do not harm the plant, and what I do is prune any damaged leaves off with a sharp pair of pruners, which stimulates new growth.

Air plants are a type of bromeliad.

(Read my article, how to revive a dying bromeliad).

Key Takeaways:

  • The reason for a dying air plant is because of rot caused by water pooling in the crown of the plant. Air plants need to be dry between bouts of watering. If water stays in the crown of the air plant, it turns brown and starts to rot with a dying appearance.
  • The reason for an air plant turning brown at the ends is because of underwatering. Air plants should be watered twice a week with a good soak. If the air plant is underwatered the leaf ends start to turn brown and curl up because of drought.
  • Air plants can turn brown or yellow and feel soft if they are consistently damp. Air plants require good air circulation and need to dry out between bouts of watering. If the air plants are damp for too long, they develop rot, causing the leaves to turn brown or yellow with a dying appearance.
  • Air plants can scorch brown if they are in too much direct sunlight with temperatures exceeding 85℉ and in climates with low humidity. Air plants prefer bright indirect light rather than full sun, which causes the leaves to turn brown.
  • To revive an air plant with curling brown leaf ends, submerge the air plant in lukewarm water for 10 minutes to allow the leaves to absorb the water they need. Keep the air plant out of direct sunlight to help the brown leaf ends recover, and water the air plant at least twice per week.
  • To revive a dying air plant, recreate the air plant’s natural environment with bright, indirect light, water the air plant at least twice per week, and allow the air plant to dry before watering again. Keep air plants in a temperature range between 65℉ and 85 during the day and 50 to 65 at night.

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