Califonia Bountiful

Something's in the air

March/April 2020 California Bountiful magazine

Otherworldly air plants popular for dramatic displays

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Landscape architect Josh Rosen shows off one of his newest designs, an outdoor hanging lantern adorned with tillandsias, also known as air plants. Requiring no soil, air plants can be displayed in myriad creative ways. Photo courtesy of Josh Rosen

Because they don't need soil to grow, air plants have become one of the hottest houseplants and home-décor trends in recent years, adding greenery to dwellings that may be too tight for potted plants.

In the wild, these plants from the genus Tillandsia can be found clinging to trees, cliffs, rock faces and other plants. Indoors, their soil-free, easy-care requirements allow the eye-catching plants to be displayed in countless creative ways, whether they're adorning terrariums, nestling in seashells, topping vases or mounted to different materials.

Their popularity has inspired an entire cottage industry of air plant art that's showing up in exhibits, craft fairs and street festivals, as well as on websites such as Etsy that feature handmade and do-it-yourself items.

Recalling his first encounter with air plants some 25 years ago, Josh Rosen, a Los Angeles-based landscape architect whose work focuses on using tillandsias, said he was "struck by how neat they look and how much they just didn't fit the normal mold of what you'd expect from plants." After learning about the more than 600 varieties of tillandsias, he said he was hooked and started collecting them. Soon, he began calling himself Airplantman, which later became his official business moniker.

"What I love about tillandsias is people look at them and then they look again because they're like, 'What is that?'" he said. "I like that it makes people pay attention to nature again."

Rosen uses a variety of frames to create a vertical garden of tillandsias, which features nearly 30 pounds of Spanish moss as a backdrop. Photo courtesy of Josh Rosen

Gravity-defying designs

Today, Rosen specializes in custom installations such as living green walls and vertical gardens that feature air plants. His work can be found in private residences and businesses such as stores, restaurants, hotels and shopping malls. He also markets a line of frames, vessels and lanterns for the home plant owner.

"These plants are so sculptural and unique, but they do have special care requirements that they need to thrive," he said.

Despite their name, air plants don't survive on just air; they also need water and sunlight. The plants absorb moisture and nutrients directly through their leaves, which are covered in trichomes, tiny hairs that act as sponges. The plants use their roots mostly as anchors to find their perch. Though air plants are often confused with succulents, Rosen said, tillandsias belong to the bromeliad family, which means they're related to pineapples.

Whether the plants are big or small, Rosen said he designs his displays with easy maintenance in mind, allowing for regular watering and air circulation, which are key to air plant care. His living walls, for example, often use waterproof materials so that the frames can be sprayed down or completely submerged in water with the plants in place, shaken dry and then put back on the wall. Larger installations have built-in irrigation systems.

Waterproof and rust-free, Rosen's frames can be submerged in water with the plants and are meant for indoor or outdoor use. Photo courtesy of Josh Rosen

Sometimes, his clients want to put the plants "in the darkest, most unwaterable, inhospitable corner of an indoor space," where he knows they will not survive long-term, he said. Those displays typically require periodic upkeep in which the plants are replaced with new ones.

"Because they don't need soil, if ever a plant dies, you can just pop it out of the frame," he said.

One of Rosen's living walls is in the lobby of The Pearl apartment building in Los Angeles. Christofer Castillo, manager of the complex, said the display fits with "the whole theme of our community, which is wellness and health"—though he acknowledged the placement of the wall does not give the plants adequate sunlight, so some of the original plants have had to be replaced. The wall continues to turn heads, he said.

"It's gorgeous. It's a real statement piece and it definitely creates conversation when you first come in and see it," Castillo said. "I love the maintenance. You do have to keep up with the watering, but there's no soil, there's no mess."

Rosen keeps thousands of air plants in his studio, but he is not a grower. Instead, he relies on people such as Pamela Koide Hyatt of Bird Rock Tropicals, a nursery in San Diego County that specializes in bromeliads with an emphasis on tillandsias.

Grower Pamela Koide Hyatt, who became interested in tillandsias in the late 1970s, is now a leading expert on the plants. At her business, Bird Rock Tropicals, she propogates about 400 species. Photo: © 2020 Rob Andrew

Worth the wait

Hyatt's interest in tillandsias started in the late 1970s while on vacation in Mexico, where she first saw what she described as a "spacey-looking creature" during a hike in the mountains. She brought the plant home and tried to learn more about it.

"I had never seen anything like it, couldn't find much information about the plants in any of the local nurseries," she said. "Therefore, I decided to start a little business to explore these plants."

Forty years later, she's become a leading expert on tillandsias and has traveled extensively to places where the plants grow in the wild, which are in Central and South America, and southern parts of the U.S. These days, her work is focused mostly on growing the plants from seed and hybridizing them to create new varieties. The process takes years, as some air plants can mature and bloom in as little as two years, while others need 20 to 30 years. With some species, it can take two years before the seeds are ready to harvest, Hyatt said.

Virtually all tillandsias bloom once in their life. As they bloom, they begin growing small offsets, or "pups," at the base of the plant. These clones usually mature within one to four years and can then be separated from the mother plant.

Though Hyatt sells some of her plants through her retail nursery, much of her business is through the internet. Many of her customers are tillandsia collectors from all over the world in search of rare and new varieties.

Hyatt said her goal now is to bring some of those varieties to the commercial market using tissue culture, which allows her to mass-produce the plants more rapidly than by propagating them from seed or by growing the offsets.

"As a new plant becomes popular, people want something different, in different colors and shapes," she said. "This is a way to exponentially increase your production of something that you created that is a good plant for the market, and to get it out there."

Ching Lee

The easy-care plants can be hand-wired to the base of wooden vessels. Photo courtesy of Josh Rosen

Care tips for thriving tillandsias 

Despite their growing mainstream appeal, air plants remain misunderstood by some owners, who send their plants to an early death because they don't know how to care for them. The plants are resilient, but they do need regular watering and plenty of air and light.

Underwatering is by far the No. 1 cause of air plant demise, said Josh Rosen, aka Airplantman. The leaves become curlier as the plant dries. Soaking it for several hours will revive the plant.

Contrary to popular belief, spritzing is not enough, as the light mist will evaporate before the plant can absorb the water, said tillandsia grower Pamela Koide Hyatt. Keeping the plants in the bathroom is fine, but the humidity in the room should not replace actual watering. For many common species, soaking the plant for several hours once a week is a good rule. Filtered water is best, but if using tap water, let the water sit for 15 minutes to evaporate the chlorine.

Good air circulation is needed after watering so the plants can dry completely. Keeping them constantly damp will cause rot. Though glass globes are popular air plant displays, Hyatt said they tend to block airflow. If using them, allow the plant to dry after watering before returning it to the orb. Copper is poisonous to air plants, so avoid displays that use this metal.

Air plants prefer bright, filtered light, but not necessarily direct sunlight, Rosen said. He recommends keeping them within a few feet of a window. The plants don't tolerate frost but can take a lot of heat, as long as they're properly hydrated.

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