The greenery grown and sold at Paducah’s Plant Oddities isn’t your average selection of houseplants. They’re Tillandsias, also known as air plants, and owner Louis Davis offers lots of reasons to collect and admire them.
“It was back in 1997, I accidentally happened upon this website for a nursery that was a grower for tillandsias,” says Davis. “I’d never heard of a plant that didn’t grow in soil and so I ordered a sample order of them, got them in, and they were so unique and there were so many different kinds.”
Soon, Davis got into selling the plants, bringing them to reptile shows and garden shows. Eventually his business grew to carry more than 300 different species.
“Most of them are epiphytes,” Davis explains. “That is, they don’t grow in soil, but rather they grow on another plant, a tree, a shrub, a cactus or even rock surfaces. They don’t parasitize the plant, they just use it for support.
“The majority of them don’t absorb nutrients and moisture through the roots; they absorb it through the leaves,” Davis continues. “All over the plant are just thousands and thousands of little pore-like openings and they’re surrounded by this semitransparent flaky structure that’s called a trichome. Those trichomes help hold water until it can be absorbed into the plant. On species that grow in desert areas, those tricones will be very pronounced, and they help shield the plant from the sun as well.”
Care of tillandsias is relatively easy, which makes them popular with people who may not consider themselves green thumbs.
“Tillandsia seem to be almost indestructible plants,” says plant collector Bob Dwyer. “They look almost artificial and they’re interesting texture to feel and to look at. I think anybody could grow a tillandsia as long as you just have the basics of once a week soaking and the ability to let them air dry so they don’t stay wet.”
“Being epiphytes they’re used to getting wet and then trying out fairly quickly,” says Davis. “You want to give them a good drenching and then allow them to dry out in a few hours. You don’t want them to sit in water or where it’s damp because they’ll rot if they do. They’re good down to around 40 degrees, so you want to keep them indoors when it gets cold. But the main thing is just bright, indirect light and regular watering.”
Davis says that many tillandsia species will change color in a process called blushing. They’ll change from their usual green to red, orange, or yellow. Others produce flowers in a wide variety of colors.
“They produce seeds that are very similar to a dandelion seed, and of course we know how successful those are at spreading,” says Davis. “[The seeds] will blow over into a new area where there are other native species and then they will grow, hybridize, and cross-pollinate with those species.”
Hybridization continues to occur with each subsequent generation, adding to the variety of species.
Because tillandsias can grow without soil, they’re popular for use in decorative glass orb terraria. The variety of species make them an unusual and beautiful addition to a home.
“Tillandsia is a good way, I think, to start plant collecting because of the ease of growth, ease of maintenance, and just the fact that they’re odd, so they’re just a good conversation starter,” says Dwyer. “They come in all shapes and sizes and colors and they’re just fascinating plants. I’d suggest anybody that wanted to start out trying to grow a plant and they hadn’t had much luck in the past with growing plants, try tillandsia, they seem to be pretty easy keepers.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2003, which originally aired on October 18, 2014. Watch the full episode.