According to the internet, air plants are basically the easiest houseplant EVER, and if your air plants are dying, then you must be doing something wrong. (Plant parent guilt looks remarkably like mom guilt.)
I know I’ve made this outrageous statement before, but what if the internet is wrong?
Air plants have unique light and watering needs, just like other houseplants. Like you, I’ve had plants – not just air plants – that did great and many, many others that bit the dust in short order. Practice makes perfect, as they say, though often it’s more about finding the right plant for your particular lighting conditions (and remembering to water).
So why ARE your air plants falling apart, turning brown or otherwise looking, well . . . dead?
The number one reasons your air plants are dying is lack of water. It’s a common myth that air plants don’t need a lot of water, or that you can just mist them every once in awhile. There are some species that are from drier climates where that might be okay (or they could scrape by hanging out in your bathroom with consistent humidity from steamy showers), but for the most part, air plants need a good soak at least once a week. Our homes tend to be kind of dry anyway thanks to modern heating and cooling systems, so it’s not like your plant is going to absorb water from the air unless you have a dedicated humidifier. (In that case, I salute your commitment to your plant.)
As air plants don’t have a root system, everything the plant needs is absorbed through the leaves. A weekly bath allows those leaves to absorb more water, similar to giving your potted plants a good drink. Misting isn’t a bad idea by any means, but shouldn’t be the only water source. Water from misting will evaporate pretty quickly.
After your plant gets a bath (and hour soak has been sufficient for most of my plants), let it dry on a towel to ensure it’s not sitting in water. Because sitting in water leads to cause of death #2 . . .
Your air plant is dying because it got too much water. This one is less common but I’ve had it happen with certain varieties. If the plant gets too much water, it rots and falls apart. My juncea in particular were susceptible to this – the cap would fall off and I’d be left with a pile of sad, wet leaves. A moment of silence, please, for all of my poor plants that met this unfortunate end. I’ve also had cases where I didn’t do a great job at drying a group of air plants after a soaking, and one or two didn’t dry out quickly enough, leading, once again, to crown rot. There’s really no point of return from this – if you don’t water for awhile, there’s a chance of rehydrating the plant, but you can’t unhydrate.
Last, but not least, your air plant might be dying because it’s getting the wrong amount of light. In my experience, air plant leaves burn easily, so hanging out in a south facing window with bright morning sun would be a fast track to sunburn. Alternately, too little light will cause plants to lose their coloring and generally fail to thrive. Bright light is good, just not direct sunlight. This is particularly true if you bring your air plants outside – try to find a shaded spot.