When and how should you water a Bromeliad? Members of the Bromeliaceae family make delightful houseplants, but the quirks that make them interesting can sometimes baffle new owners. One of the biggest sources of confusion is proper watering. Do these plants prefer to hang in the air and live off mist, sip from their central “cup”, or absorb moisture from the soil like other plants?
You can water a Bromeliad in the central “cup” or “tank”, soak the soil, or both. Most species are drought-tolerant, so water the soil only when it’s begun to dry out. Test it with your finger once a week, watering when the top few inches feel dry. If there’s water in your Bromeliad’s cup, flush it out every few days.
The advice above obviously doesn’t apply if your Bromeliad lacks a cup or doesn’t live in the soil. Part of the charm of these incredible plants is their diversity! We’ll provide lots of other important hydration advice below, including caring for Air Plants and watering in different seasons. We’ll also explain what to do if you get your watering routine wrong.
The Best Way to Water a Bromeliad
With most plants, the question of how to water doesn’t take much thought. You simply soak the soil until it’s totally damp and the pot is dripping water. But the question of where to water a Bromeliad is a little more complicated.
Many of the plants in this family live high above the ground, nestled in branches, knotholes, or cracks in tree bark. Lacking moist soil to serve as a water reservoir, they lack wide, absorptive root systems. They’ve come up with several alternate strategies for staying hydrated and absorbing nutrients.
For instance, most Bromeliads can absorb at least some water through their leaves. This is often aided by fine, hairlike structures called trichomes that help to collect and trap moisture from the air. Some species also have specialized body plans that help them accumulate water or soggy leaf litter in their foliage.
Depending on the type of Bromeliad you’re growing, some of the following techniques may work better than others:
Many Bromeliads do have roots that can take in water, and you can water them much like you would any other potted plant. Drench the substrate in their pot — this could be a light and fluffy potting mix or something more uniform like moss or perlite — until it’s soaked through.
Potted Bromeliads should always have drainage holes. You can tell that you’ve watered yours thoroughly when all of the openings have water running out.
You can also bottom water a Bromeliad in a pot. Fill a shallow bowl or tray with water and place your plant’s pot inside. Let it sit for an hour or so, until water has soaked up to the top of the potting mix.
Bottom watering can be a good way to ensure that the root mass is getting evenly soaked. It can be less likely to make a mess than watering from the top. You should still water from the top every so often though, because it helps wash excess nutrients out of the soil.
There are also lots of Bromeliads with leaves that slope down at the base, forming a kind of dip or pocket at the center of the plant. Different gardeners have many different names for this structure, including:
The tank serves the same function in every Bromeliad species where it appears. It evolved to help the plant gather and store rainwater, slowly soaking it up through pores in the foliage.
You can water a Bromeliad with a cup by simply pouring water into the middle of the plant. If the potting mix is getting dry, feel free to keep going until the tank overflows. Vase-style Bromeliads often have absorptive roots as well, so it’s good to water the soil as well. This encourages their roots to spread out and grow strong, which is good for the plant’s stability.
Keeping a bit of water in the tank helps your plant stay consistently hydrated. Don’t let it get stagnant, though, or the foliage may get soggy and rotten. Roughly once a week, you should dump it out, rinse the cup, and refill it. It’s often best to do this in the tub or a deep sink — the water tends to splash everywhere!
Because most Bromeliads can take in moisture through their leaf surfaces, you can also water them by misting the foliage. Almost any of these plants will benefit from an occasional spritzing with a spray bottle.
You can generally tell which ones appreciate it most from the color of their leaves. Those with high concentrations of trichomes generally look paler and shinier, with a whitish or silvery sheen. Up close, they may appear slightly fuzzy. This is because they have a higher concentration of trichomes, making them more efficient at taking in moisture through their leaves.
That said, misting probably won’t replace the need to periodically fill their tanks or soak their soil. A Bromeliad in a terrarium or a mini-greenhouse with a misting machine might be able to live mostly on aerial moisture. But spraying by hand generally doesn’t deposit enough water to keep a houseplant alive.
However, misting is a great way to provide some supplemental hydration. This is especially helpful when the weather is hot and dry.
How Often Should You Water a Bromeliad?
Bromeliads are a fascinating family of plants, with tons of adaptations to help them survive in different environments. They tend to be drought-resistant by houseplant standards.
Their dizzying diversity makes it hard to say anything that applies to all of them though. There are at least 3,000 known Bromeliad species. Some are adapted for moist jungle environments, while others live on the dry, windswept slopes of mountains. It’s hard to say exactly how thirsty your Bromeliad is without knowing what variety you have.
Still, there are a few generalizations that apply to most members of this family:
- They don’t usually need watering more than once every one to two weeks in the summer
- In the winter, watering once per month may be enough
- Bromeliads with whitish, gray, or silvery leaves are usually more drought-tolerant
- So are Bromeliads with more rigid and spiky foliage
- Terrestrial and urn-style Bromeliads often need more water
- High humidity helps offset their need for watering
- Even the Bromeliads that can survive long droughts tend to go dormant during the process — you won’t see much growth or flowering if you don’t water
Our overall recommendation is to check the substrate in your Bromeliad’s pot once a week during the spring and summer months. If the top inch or two still feels moist, leave it alone and check again next week. In the winter, you can do this kind of checkup every two to three weeks at most.
It’s pretty much always better to water a Bromeliad too little than too much. Though many of them are native to the tropics, they can almost all weather at least a mild drought. Watering too often, on the other hand, can cause suffocation and rotting.
Watering a Mounted Bromeliad
Not all Bromeliads live in pots. Many owners choose to mount them on rocks, stumps, pieces of driftwood, or other decorative objects. Certain kinds of Bromeliads — most notably the Tillandsia or Air Plants — will grow much better with this kind of setup.
A mounted Bromeliad requires a different approach to watering. Since it doesn’t have an absorbent growing medium to soak and retain moisture, it’s much more susceptible to drying out.
You should try to keep these plants as consistently moist as possible. Mist them frequently and dunk them underwater at least once a week. (Some experts recommend soaking every two to three days to keep them as healthy as possible). Air plants with extremely gray or silvery leaves can make do with a quick plunge in the water, while those with greener foliage may benefit from soaking for 15-20 minutes.
After soaking, set your Bromeliad down on a cloth or towel, foliage-side down, and let it dry. This helps prevent fungal disease and rot.
You can also mount vase-type Bromeliads, in which case you should water them exactly as described above. Simply keep the cup full at all times, but rinse it out at least once a week.
The watering approach described above is good general advice, but you’ll have to make some adjustments depending on local conditions. Hot, dry weather will make your Bromeliad thirstier than usual. Dim light will tend to slow its growth and cause it to use less water. You should adjust how frequently you’re checking the potting mix based on these factors.
Humidity is important, too. Most homes are drier than Bromeliads prefer (they like the relative humidity to be around 60-70%). If you do happen to live in a very humid area, remember that your plant may be able to draw some moisture from the air. You may be able to water them a bit less often.
What Type of Water Should You Give a Bromeliad?
Certain kinds of water are better for your plant than others. In general, Bromeliads prefer mildly acidic water containing only a small amount of dissolved minerals. Getting the right type is especially important for species with tanks, since the water will be in close contact with the foliage for long periods.
No matter what type of liquid you’re using, never water a Bromeliad from a metal container. These plants are very sensitive to dissolved metal ions and can be damaged by watering.
Options For Bromeliad Water:
In order from best to worst, here are the kinds of water you could use:
- Rainwater. Rain is what Bromeliads live on in the wild, and it fits their needs more or less perfectly. It’s slightly acidic and includes a small quantity of important nutrients. Collecting it can be a bit of a chore, but if you have a rain barrel, your Bromeliad will appreciate it.
- Spring water. Bottled spring water has many of the same advantages as rainwater.
- Filtered or distilled water. Purifying water by filtration, deionization, reverse osmosis, or distillation will remove virtually everything from it. This can be overkill, though — completely pure water may drain nutrients from the foliage by osmosis. It’s best to add a fractional dose of liquid fertilizer when you water a Bromeliad with purified water.
- Tap water. Tap water quality can vary quite a bit from place to place. Most Bromeliads don’t mind the small amounts of chlorine in water from the faucet, but some areas have very hard (mineral-heavy) water. This can harm the leaves, not to mention leaving behind unsightly crusts and streaks.
- Mineral water. Bottled mineral water is similar to hard tap water. It’s not the worst thing for your Bromeliad, but it’s not ideal either.
- Softened water. Hard water is bad for Bromeliads, but water that’s been chemically softened is even worse. The salts involved can be toxic to your plant. If your tap water is softened, use something else for your Bromeliad.
Can You Water a Bromeliad With Ice Cubes?
Short answer: Nope.
Some people on the internet swear by the “ice cube method” as a way to water plants of all kinds. The idea seems to be that you’re less likely to overwater your plant if you just pile some ice in the pot and let it slowly melt.
There are at least two problems with this idea. First of all, overwatering isn’t about giving too much water all at once. Most plants prefer that style of watering — it mimics the irregular pattern of rainfall they get in nature. Overwatering happens when a plant’s soil stays wet for too long.
Second, and more importantly, most houseplants are adapted for very warm climates. Exposure to freezing temperatures can cause shock, damaging their tissues. This is definitely true of Bromeliads. You’re particularly likely to hurt the plant if you put ice into the central urn, where it will be in direct contact with the leaves.
How To Tell If Your Bromeliad Is Dehydrated
Are you worried that you aren’t watering your plant enough? Here are some of the signs it’s getting dehydrated:
- The tank is dry. If your Bromeliad has an urn in the middle, it should pretty much always have some water in it. Don’t leave it sitting for weeks on end, but if it’s all dried up, it’s time to rehydrate.
- The potting mix is dry. There’s a delicate balance to maintain with soil moisture — it shouldn’t be soaking wet, but it also shouldn’t be bone-dry. A pot full of desiccated moss or potting mix is a warning sign that you should water.
- Slow growth. As noted previously, Bromeliads adapt to drought by slowing their metabolism. If your plant hasn’t put out any new leaves in a while, you may be watering too little. Of course, many other issues can interrupt growth, so don’t rely on this symptom alone to diagnose underwatering.
- Brown, brittle leaves. Browning due to dehydration tends to start at the tips of the leaves as your Bromeliad moves moisture toward its center to cope with drought. The discolored tissue will also usually feel crispy and brittle.
- Curling leaves. The foliage on a thirsty Bromeliad might also start to roll up to reduce surface area and conserve water. This behavior also usually moves from the tips inward.
What Should You Do?
The answer is simple: water your Bromeliad. Don’t skimp — give it a good long drink. Once it begins to absorb water, it should look healthy again. The brown tips won’t go away, but in time, your plant will replace them with healthy tissue.
Some kinds of potting mix, particularly those heavy on peat moss, may become hydrophobic (water-resistant) if they dry out completely. This can make it hard to water properly. The moisture tends to bead on the top and roll down the sides.
You can correct this issue by bottom-watering your Bromeliad. Dunking the pot completely underwater until it stops bubbling can rehydrate the soil even more quickly.
How To Tell If Your Bromeliad Is Overwatered
Overwatering is a much more serious issue for Bromeliads than underwatering, so it’s important to know the signs:
- Slow growth. Yes, this can be a sign of too much water as well. Your plant can’t grow without adequate aeration for its roots and leaves.
- Browning and yellowing. If the leaves are turning yellow or brown from the bottom up, it could be a sign of root rot due to overwatering. Unlike in cases of dehydration, this usually makes the foliage feel soft and mushy rather than stiff and dry.
- Leaf loss. When the plant is rotting, the foliage also tends to drop off easily. Even a slight tug or a small amount of pressure may result in a leaf popping loose.
- Foul smell. Rotting leaf tissue, unsurprisingly, smells bad. Many overwatered plants tend to produce nasty odors from the soil, but it’s often even more pronounced with Bromeliads because the plant’s “tank” may also stink.
What Should You Do?
Saving a rotting Bromeliad can be difficult, because the disease may be fairly advanced by the time you notice a problem. Since these plants don’t have a very extensive root system, it doesn’t take long for the decay to reach the crown of the plant.
If you inspect your Bromeliad and see that the center is rotted all the way through, there may not be much you can do. It might be time to discard it. If it has any pups that aren’t rotting, you could try to start over with one of those.
On the other hand, if the rot is confirmed to just a few of the outer leaves, the plant might be salvageable.
Take it out of the pot and snip off all of the rotting roots and leaves. Infected tissue will look black, brown, yellow, or gray. It also tends to be limp and mushy — healthy roots and leaves have a pleasant firmness. Rotting sections may also feel slimy. Disinfect your pruners between cuts using rubbing alcohol to avoid spreading germs to the healthy parts of the plant.
Swish the base of the plant and any remaining roots in water with some dissolved fungicide. This should kill off any lingering traces of rot. Then, repot your Bromeliad in fresh potting mix. If you’re going to reuse the same pot, make sure to swab it out with disinfectant first.
There’s still a chance that your Bromeliad could be too damaged to survive. But if you’re lucky, it may recover once you’ve amputated the infected tissue.
Figuring out how to water a Bromeliad can feel a little overwhelming, but these plants can be surprisingly flexible. The most important rules are to avoid watering the soil too often and to change the water in the cup frequently.
Always check the moisture level of the potting mix before adding more water. Drought may slow your Bromeliad down, but overwatering could put it out of commission for good. In the long run, paying attention to your plant’s condition will teach you more about how to water it than you can learn by following any set of rules.