Paul T. Isley knows a lot about tillandsias, or "air plants" as they’re sometimes called. He’s written two books about them and says he regularly helps researchers at the Huntington Botanical Gardens.
“What’s cool about tillandsias is that so many of them are true epiphytes, which means that they can grow with no soil,” Isley says. “They’ve mastered the trick of being able to get their water and nutrients through their leaves, which allows them to grow literally on anything.”
After visiting a friend's house and seeing some tillandsias on his patio, Isley fell in love with the flora.
“They looked like they were from outer space or from the bottom of the ocean,” Isley says. “But I saw those plants and I just couldn’t believe that those could be real, that life could do something like that.”
(Alien-like tillandsias cling to a rock face at Rainforest Flora in Torrance. Photo: Katherine Garrova)
Isley and a couple partners started Rainforest Flora in 1976. At his retail space in Torrance, Isley built an indoor garden with waterfalls, koi ponds and thousands of tillandsias that hang from the ceiling and cling to rock faces.
According to Isley, Rainforest Flora is now one of the world’s largest growers of tillandsias. When he first started out though, his weird-looking plants weren’t in high demand.
“In the beginning, there really wasn’t that much interest and there wasn’t anybody selling them. For two years I did arts and crafts fairs,” Isley says.
But Isley doesn’t sit at craft fairs much anymore. Home Depot is now his biggest customer.
“The plants are starting to hit the mainstream now,” he says. “More and more people are discovering how cool they are.”
And it’s not only big retailers that have caught on. Lovisa Staffland, a regular customer at Rainforest Flora, works for an outdoor living boutique in the Abbott Kinney neighborhood called Ilan Dei, where they sell tillandsia arrangements.
“We have noticed an increase in sales when it comes to air plants, definitely,” Staffland says. She says the increase in popularity of tillandsias might be because many people want plants in their house, but not everybody has the space. Isley agrees.
“As we go more and more towards urban environments and people live in smaller places, especially in Asia and in urban environments in our city — where you have apartments and stuff — they’re perfect because they don’t grow and take over, they’re so easy and you can put them on anything,” Isley says.
There’s a California-specific reason to collect tillandsias too.
“They’re drought tolerant,” Isley says. “They can go long periods without getting water because they have big hypodermal storage cells inside their leaves.” A dried-out tillandsia will even re-hydrate if left under water overnight.
In his 5,500-square-foot nursery, Isley explains that they keep up with demand by growing the vast majority of the tillandsias they sell in-house.
(Germinating tillandsia seeds at Rainforest Flora in Torrance; Photo: Katherine Garrova.)
Once the seeds germinate, the young tillandsias have to be separated by hand. “That’s kind of what I do at night when I’m sitting there watching Netflix,” Isley says jokingly.
Some of the tillandsias that start their lives inside Isley’s nursery will be around for decades to come. Much like the orchid, tillandsias offer thousands of distinct varieties and a very long lifespan.
“One of the really interesting things people can do with tillandsias is that they can keep them over the course of their lives,” Isley says. “People go through families, they go through wives and husbands and kids and jobs and all this stuff, but to have plants you can keep with you all those years is pretty special... They’re there with you over all the years.”