Air Plant Alchemy: behind the scenes at a tillandsia nursery

More from the 2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara, which took place from April 4-7, 2019. 

The final destination we visited at the 2019 Bromeliad Summit was Air Plant Alchemy. They're a major grower and wholesaler of tillandsias and orchids and now have a showroom/retail outlet at their location outside of Carpinteria. We had a chance to shop (the first and only opportunity at the Summit) and got to take a look inside a production greenhouse. I should have stuck with the group as I might have learned a few things about growing tillandsias, but as usually I drifted off to take photos. When will I learn?

The showroom/retail outlet occupies half a greenhouse and features some impressive specimens of tillandsias and other bromeliads:

Quite a few tillandsias were flowering:

Orchids, too: 

This display of white orchids and silver-leaved tillandsias was killer:

As I mentioned earlier, I didn't learn any tillandsia growing secrets on the greenhouse tour because I was too busy taking photos, but there's a lot of useful information on the interwebz. Based on the environment inside the production greenhouse, I can tell you that two things are essential: heat and humidity. In fact, it was so hot, it didn't take long before I started to sweat.

While the selection of air plants you see in nurseries and garden centers is fairly limited, the genus Tillandsia is enormous: According to Wikipedia, there are about 650 (!) different species, not to mention hundreds of hybrids and named cultivars. 

Tillandsias are native to a huge range that extends from the U.S. (Texas and southeastern US) through Mexico and Central America down to South America. Most are epiphytes, i.e. growing on other plants (mostly trees) as well as on roofs and even telephone lines, some grow on rocks and a few in the ground. Generally speaking, species with green leaves come from a cool humid climate and live in the shade while species with gray/silver leaves come from areas with low precipitation but high humidity and prefer very bright light, even full sun.

While Air Plant Alchemy only grows a tiny fraction of the tillandsia species in existence (most are rare in cultivation and/or hard to keep alive in captivity), I was still surprised by the variety of shapes and textures and the differences in color, subtle as they sometimes are.

These tillandsias set off lively discussions. Upshot: the tips are dyed. Yep. 'Nuff said.


I felt a certain awe seeing what must be thousands, if not tens of thousands, of individual tillandsias growing horizontally and vertically. The patterns they made were a feast for the eyes.

The Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) was perfection—weightless-looking, fluffy and soft. I wanted to drape some over my head, but of course that would have been bad etiquette.


2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara

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  1. What a missed photo opportunity, Gerhard with flowing locks of Tillandsia usneoides hair.

    I think I completely missed the large plants featured in your shot DSC07338, how cool they are! And I did trail along with the group for awhile, but never heard any useful advice to I too wandered off on my own.

    1. I don't think I was wild enough as a child because every now and then I feel the itch to make some mischief!

  2. And here I thought Rainforest Flora was a big operation! I plan to stop by there on my next visit to the area.

    1. Is Rainforest Flora still in operation? I seem to remember they suffered damage from one of the devastating SoCal fires a few years ago?!?

  3. Based on your photos, no wonder you were off taking photos. A feast for the eyes.

    There's a Tilly or two that turns bright red when its time to flower, so the dye is not as completely disgusting as a Haworthia spray painted bright blue, but yeah...

    Here keeping Tillandsias just above, or on, damp ground seems to fulfill the high-humidity requirement pretty well.

    1. I soak my tillandsias for 1/2 to 1 hour every week. That seems to keep them happy. They're all outside.

  4. Tillies are rather alien looking plants but can see how you can get hooked. In the last few photos they look to be growing on some kind of fleece. Any ideas as to what or why? The whole summit looked to be a fantastic experience!

    1. I wonder if the fleece is to add constant moisture?

      The Bromeliad Summit was phenomenal - I would never have been able to visit these wonderful places otherwise.


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