If ever a plant looked like an octopus, it’s this one. Tillandsia, aka airplants. They’re a genus of some 540 species in the bromeliad family. They grow in rainforests, mountains and deserts, they can look like tiny squid or enormous sea-urchins, like spiky agaves or tendrilling elf-hair. But the one thing they all have in common is that they don’t need soil. And for South Sound enthusiasts, this means they’re the perfect plant to turn into home décor – even if you have a brown thumb.
“They’re the coolest plant – you can keep them in apartments, on a shelf, in a jar,” explains Sue Goetz, owner of Tacoma’s Urban Garden Company where she sells a few tillandsia plus any number of terrariums and vintage glassware to display them in. “They have a unique texture that captures your imagination. And they don’t need soil – that’s the fascination.”
It was definitely what got Eric Willacker started on growing airplants. The Olympia man saw them a few years ago at a Seattle flower and garden show and was intrigued enough to start some at home, ordered from a supply company. Since then he’s been patiently pulling off the “babies” as they sprout and nurturing his parent plants until they’re several feet high.
“They’re different, and interesting,” he says.
Bizarre might be a better word. Airplants have a huge range of texture, shape and color, from the curly octopus legs of t. duratti and the dark, solid squid-like tentacles of t. bulbosa to the tiny, pale-green sea-urchin fuzz of t. fucshii, v. gracillis and the pine-tree sprout of t. andreanna. T. latifolia ennanna is spiky, like the top of a pineapple. Every so often (it’s unpredictable, Willacker says) an airplant will send up a flower shoot, red or yellow, and after that it grows “babies” that emerge from the top, base or sides like a weird second (or third) head.
All over each airplant are tiny scales that serve to collect the water and nutrients it’s not getting from soil, and give it a furry feel, rather like the felted surface of a pool table.
Hailing from South and Central America and parts of Mexico and Texas, tillandsia grow in all kinds of situations. The thin-leafed ones probably originate from the rainforest, whereas thicker-leafed plants are used to coping in the desert. Spanish moss, that hangs like thick green cobwebs from the enormous oaks of Texas and Louisiana, is a kind of tillandsia.
It goes without saying that a plant that takes nutrients from the air is super-easy to look after. All tillandsia need is a light spot and a soaking in water once a week. That’s it. They’re nontoxic to pets, you can go on vacation and forget to water them and they’ll be fine.
But the big advantage of a soil-less plant is that it can go, literally, anywhere.
“I’ve seen them put in crystals, glass vases and dishes, urns, shells; tied to sticks, hanging from the ceiling, sitting on the windowsill,” says Willacker. “Anything they can sit on or in.”
In the Central American rainforest they can grow up to four feet high, but yours probably won’t get much bigger than 12 inches at most, and that will take a while.
Be warned – airplants do grow mini-roots for support, and they’ll attach themselves to anything you put them on after a month or so. But if you pull them off to soak them, that shouldn’t be a problem.
“Just pick something that can get wet,” advises Willacker, in case you need to soak the container also.
In fact, airplants have such a unique visual appearance that they deserve a star spot in your home décor. One treatment Goetz likes is to attach them to the wall like a picture, even with an empty picture frame around them with mesh cloth to support the plant. You can set them into a tree branch for a natural look, or suspend them from the ceiling with fishing wire (they’re that light). Put them into an empty birdcage where a regular plant would be too hard to water. Or do as Goetz does and make a terrarium out of them. Unlike other terraria, these don’t need any soil – just pick a beautiful glass container that’ll show off your airplant, maybe add some white beach glass, and stick it in.
“It’s like (putting the plant) under a microscope,” Goetz explains. She occasionally goes a step further, building a mini-garden by adding rocks, shells or other ornaments.
Since they are so light and delicate, think about what’s behind them: plain walls, glass or reflective surfaces highlight the airplant’s texture and form.
“The versatility is huge,” says Goetz. “I love them.”
want an airplant? LOOK HERE:
• Olympia grower Eric Willacker sells off his Facebook site at facebook.com/airicsairplants.
• He’ll also be selling in person at Olympia’s Love Our Local Festival on Feb. 9, information at sustainablesouthsound.org; and at summer festivals like Tacoma’s Art on the Ave.
• In Tacoma, Sue Goetz sells plants and terrariums at Urban Garden Company, 311 Puyallup Ave., Tacoma; 253-265-2209, thecreativegardener.com.
WHERE TO FIND AIRPLANTS
Tacoma's Seymour Conservatory sells and displays tillandsia. Open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily; metroparkstacoma.org.