Paul Isley III is a man in love with a plant. In Brazil, he risked his life for tillandsia—an epiphytic genus commonly known as air plants—he has trekked across Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Ecuador to collect it, and has spent decades in the United States propagating it from seed. The co-owner of Rainforest Flora now possesses millions of them, ranging from seedlings the size of pencil erasers to full-grown plants. When asked what fuels this passion, Isley replies, “They are like nothing else.” Indeed, tillandsias are no ordinary plants. Bulbous, feathery, or spiky—the poet Hart Crane called one an “inverted octopus with heavenward arms”—they make their home above ground, suspended in the air among trees, cacti, and rocky outcrops. Found throughout the Americas, tillandsias comprise the largest genus of the bromeliad family, with more than 450 recognized species, including the ethereal Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), which drapes from the branches of live oaks in the Southern United States. They put down no roots in the soil and receive nutrients and moisture through their leaves. The plants range in size from three centimeters to five meters, and have leaves of silver, green, and even rusty red. They produce dramatic inflorescences in shades of purple, red, pink, green, and yellow. Many are fragrant, such as T. crocata, a small, clumping species with a honeysuckle-like scent, and T. duratii, which flaunts exceptionally fragrant and long-lasting purple flowers. Once it blooms, a tillandsia begins producing offshoots called pups that become new plants in one to two years.
While tillandsia look extraordinary, their care is anything but. Isley finds them highly adaptable: “They are low maintenance,” he says, “and thrive under a broader range of conditions than almost any other type of plant.” They can tolerate temperature extremes and will survive a long time without any attention at all but are happiest in locations of 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit with good air circulation and bright indirect light. Run the plants under the faucet a few times a week (if you have hard water, use filtered). Let the leaves be your guide. If they’re curled more than usual, the plants need water: submerge them in a bowl of water overnight. Isley also suggests using epiphyte fertilizers since other types are designed to release their nitrogen nutrients only after interacting with soil.
Tillandsias flourish both indoor and out, and landscape architect Joseph Marek is so smitten with the genus that he has placed it throughout his Santa Monica, California, garden. “I think of them as garden ornaments,” he says. “I put them on tables in place of cut flowers or potted plants. They’re almost like jewelry.” Despite having run out of ground space, Marek realized he didn’t have to stop adding new plants: he could just go up. He mimics the plants’ natural environments by tucking them into the crooks of trees, mounting them on walls, and hanging them by wires, creating striking living mobiles. Since they’re not planted in the ground, air plants offer design flexibility and can be moved around. “They’re the original vertical garden,” Marek says. Onward and upward!
Melissa Ozawa is a writer in New York City who also works for the Garden Conservancy.