If your air plant tips are turning brown, there are several possible causes ranging from stress to over- or under-watering, sunlight levels, and inadequate airflow. Depending on the cause and how far gone your little houseplant is, you may be able to save it.
What To Do If Air Plant Leaves Turn Brown
The first thing to do is determine the type of 'brown' you see. Look beyond the color:
Are the brown leaf tips dry, papery, crispy, and curling unnaturally? If so, the culprit is likely stress, under-watering, too much direct sunlight, physical damage, insufficient nutrients, or seasonal changes to your indoor environment.
Do the leaves have spongy or mushy brown spots with a musty smell? If so, rot or mold is likely due to excess water, inadequate airflow, or pests.
Typically, water is the most common reason for brown air plant tips. While most Tillandsia species tend to be low-maintenance houseplants, a regular watering schedule is part of proper air plant care.
What Does An Over-Watered Air Plant Look Like?
In an over-watered air plant, the base of the plant will likely be brown (or black, or even purplish).
Other clues of excess water are a slimy or sticky base, lower leaves turning brown and falling off, or leaves losing their color and turning yellow as rot creeps out from the base.
The texture can also indicate over-watering. Air plant leaves should be light, stiff, and spiky. They're waterlogged if they start wilting or feel heavy, soft, and spongy.
What Does An Under-Watered Air Plant Look Like?
Air plants crying out for water will have dry, brown, crispy leaves that curl in on themselves unnaturally. The plant sacrifices the tips of the leaves to draw the remaining moisture into other parts of the plant.
What Is The Best Way To Water An Air Plant?
If you determine over- or under-watering is the cause, here's what to do:
If root rot or mold has set in, it's unlikely your air plant will recover. Put it in a dry spot in bright, indirect light and let it completely dry out. If it doesn't dry out, continues to decay, and starts to fall apart, toss it.
If the plant is dry and under-watered, let it soak in filtered or distilled water for several hours. Lightly shake the water off, and let it rest upside down on a towel until it is completely dry.
Use filtered or distilled water - Chlorinated tap water or well water high in minerals can damage air plants.
Dry plants completely between waterings - Always keep air plants upside down until completely dry and let them dry between waterings to avoid giving them too much water.
Set a reminder - Most air plants get enough water with weekly watering, though this can vary by species and your indoor environment. Keep an eye on new plants until you determine how often they need water, then set a recurring reminder to water them.
Other Reasons Your Air Plant Is Turning Brown
Water is the most common reason for your air plant leaves to turn brown, but there are some other causes to consider if you rule out water:
New plants need to adjust to their environment, and their leaves may turn brown initially as they settle in — especially if your plants come in the mail. Most mail-order plants will come with a care guide or gardening tips with instructions for helping new plants adjust.
Water the plant, lightly mist it with a low-nitrogen bromeliad fertilizer, then place it on a north- or south-facing windowsill in bright, indirect light. Wait until it appears healthy and has new growth before introducing it to the rest of your plant collection.
Air plants live in shady canopies with filtered light. As indoor plants, they like 4-6 hours of bright, indirect light but not direct sun. If your air plant has been in direct sun and it's turning brown, the cause is likely a sunburn.
Air plants like humidity but still need adequate air circulation to prevent fungal growth and pest infestation. Avoid clustering too many plants, and use terrariums or globes with large openings to promote airflow.
Mealy bugs, scale, and spider mites are common pest problems with air plants and can damage the leaves. They're more likely to occur on damp plants that don't have enough air circulation. Quarantine the affected plants and use a pesticide to kill the pests.
A monthly mist with a low-nitrogen fertilizer can help your air plants grow. But too much fertilizer can burn the leaves and make them brown and crispy.
If you don't want to fertilize your air plants, but they're struggling indoors, take them outside and nestle them on a tree branch for a few days to let them soak up some natural nutrients. Ensure it's sheltered with 4-6 hours of filtered sunlight. If heavy rain or winds threaten, bring your plants in so they don't blow away.
Warm, dry indoor air in the winter can dry out air plants faster. Increase the humidity in their environment with a terrarium or pebble tray, or lightly mist them between waterings. In the summer months, when it's naturally more humid, you may need to reduce waterings.
Physical damage from over-touching or nibbling from curious pets can cause brown spots and dead leaves. The trichomes (tiny 'hairs' that absorb nutrients) on the air plant leaves are delicate and vary significantly between different species of Tillandsia. Deter children and pets by keeping your plants out of reach and only handling them when they need water.
Note: If kitty does get into your air plants, don't panic! All air plants are non-toxic to pets.
Nothing lasts forever! Most air plants live between 2-5 years. If your plant has recently bloomed and turned brown, expect it to die soon. Air plants only bloom once to start the reproductive cycle before they die.
If you have a healthy air plant, it should produce many offsets, or 'pups,' during its lifetime. You can propagate air plants by harvesting these pups off the mother plant when they're about one-third to one-half the size of the mother plant.
Should You Cut The Brown Tips Off Your Air Plant?
Brown leaves are a sign of something wrong with your air plant, and you should prune them before starting rescue efforts.
Always use small, sharp scissors to prune your air plant; never forcibly pull leaves out from the base of the plant. If it's necessary to prune an entire leaf, cut it as close to the stem as possible without cutting into the stem.
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