Growth is slow at Louis Davis's business. For most, that would sound bad. But for Louis, that's just the nature of things. Business itself is booming. It's his product that has a rather lackadaisical temperament. Louis owns Paducah-based Plant Oddities, a part time hobby that quickly turned into a full time job.
"They are Tillandsia, and it's probably the most diverse genus in the plant kingdom," Louis says, walking among hundreds of plants in his greenhouse. "There are close to 1000 varieties. I carry about 300 of them here. But just stop me if I get too much into plant-speak."
Louis discovered Tillandsia 17 years ago when he ran across a wholesale nursery's website. They had what was described as air plants. "They don't need soil to grow," he says. "They just grow in the open air. They have roots, but they are only there as an anchor or support. The leaves are what absorb everything the plants need. These things would grow just sitting in your hand! Most people are knocked out by that." The plants are native to the forests, mountains, and deserts of Central and South America and are a novelty to rest of the world. There is one well-known variety that is common in the southernmost parts of the United States: Spanish Moss.
"The seeds from the plants are like dandelion seeds. They will float in the air and light anywhere. One may land on a rock or a tree, and once it is there, you'll get a teeny-tiny plant, maybe only a 32nd of an inch tall. It will bloom once in its lifetime, then it spends the rest of its life putting off pups." Pups are the way the a plant replicates itself on the spot, and, over time, the Tillandsias copies itself until it grows into a large cluster. They get so large growing on trees or rocks until eventually they fall off. "It takes a long time for that process to happen, however." adds Louis. "They live for decades, and they grow very slowly. A friend of mine has some that are nearly 30 years old." Louis has one cluster hanging in the middle of his greenhouse that he's allowed to grow without any intervention. It is nearly a foot wide, and it has taken the plant nearly seven years to get there.
The slow growth and unique nature of the plants made them ideal as decorative pieces. Louis sells many in glass orbs designed to showcase the beauty of the Tillandsia. Orbs can hang from a tabletop stand or in front of a window. The plants can also be placed on wooden tabletop displays and turned into an almost bonsai like sculpture. In the end, you can place them almost anywhere. Watering is required twice a week when the plants are removed from their display and soaked in water. Filtered sunlight not too far from a window is beneficial as well as a Tillandsia fertilizer or Miracle Gro. When properly cared for, they can last for decades.
"I took some to a show in Nashville, and the reaction of people who saw them there was just amazement. We are really at the beginning of a growth curve of interest in these." Louis found that out first hand when Better Homes & Gardens ran a story called Living Ornaments. Louis was listed as an air plant supplier, and that's when business really boomed.
"I've always been a nature kind of guy. I find things like this very interesting, and it's something I always wanted to get into. For work, however, I spent 40 years with the Post Office and Fed Ex. Once the Better Homes & Gardens article came out, Tillandsia became a full time job. That was almost four years ago. Since then, I've been shipping them all over the world. I have some going out today to Indonesia. The farthest I've shipped is to Kenya.
And another story in Real Simple magazine (7.6 million readers) this summer will probably cause another boost." And Louis is ready. His greenhouse is blossoming with hundreds of pups, ready to find new homes.
Louis's air plants can be seen locally at The Shed on Irvin Cobb Drive or at his greenhouse by appointment. More information at oddplants.com.
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