Gardening on air: Tillandsia provides beautiful, long-lasting flowers

  • Peter’s dog Liko is a great help at keeping destructive wild fowl out of the garden while he foliar feeds his plants. (Kay DeMello/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Clay pellets make a very good medium for young tillansia plants as they hold some moisture near the root zone. (Peter DeMello/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • The flowers of the neglecta x recuvifolia hybrid are an attractive addition to any garden. (Peter DeMello/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Peter will transfer the pollen on the small flowers of his tillandsia ionantha x concolor hybrid to produce seeds to create another hybrid. (Peter DeMello/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Beautiful, long-lasting flowers grace many of the over 650 species of tillandsia including this Tillandsia chiapensis x jaliscomontocola hybrid. (Peter DeMello/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Peter DeMello is a happy man, surrounded by hundreds of tillandsia in his wire house. (Kay DeMello/Special to West Hawaii Today)

Growing up, Peter DeMello was immersed in a rainforest environment. The moist climate of the upper Nu’uanu Valley on Oahu meant wild plants were everywhere. Many grew in the trees, without soil. His family’s yard was overflowing with plants. He took a bus ride to school every day but on the way home the route ended about a mile below his house. He walked up the valley nearly every day surrounded by plants on his way home.

As he walked, he passed people tending their gardens in the late afternoon. The ones that caught his imagination were the orchid growers. Older women were carefully tending plants growing without soil in their lath houses. Soon he got to know some of the orchid ladies and began helping them water and care for their beautiful specimens. These many years later, Peter still claims orchids as his favorite plants.

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His grandparents lived nearby in lower Nu’uanu and Kaimuki. Both grandparents had yards full of plants including fruit trees. One set lived next door to the renowned flower arranger May Moir. She was growing orchids and succulents, including tillandsia in her trees.

Peter remembers climbing trees in her yard very carefully, “We were warned not to disturb any of her air plants that were in the trees or we’d be in serious trouble.”

Again, Peter was fascinated by these plants that grew without soil. The story did not end there, however.

Fast forward through his youth and graduation from a technical training institute in Los Angeles where he studied to be an airline mechanic. Though gardening was a very engrossing hobby, he proceeded to work in the airline industry for nearly 45 years, only retiring two years ago in 2018.

As a young man, Peter often visited friends on the Big Island in South Kona. In the early 1970s, he decided to buy a piece of land in this dryer climate that was more suited to growing the air plants he loved. For more than a decade, he grew lots of tillandsia on his 9 acres in Ocean View.

Though his plants survived carefree during the weeks he was gone working on Oahu, he finally decided to move closer to Kailua town and the airport. In 1988, he bought the acre he now lives on in Kona Acres just above the Kona airport.

He moved hundreds of tillandsia from his acreage in Ocean View to his new site and built benches to hold his plants. He also began collecting and planting native Hawaiian hardwood trees on his new property. He later added breadfruit and avocados as well as some citrus and fig varieties, while maintaining the macnut orchard that was in the back yard. The acre was full.

Today, you can see the results of his labor as you walk up his drive lined with mature specimens including kauila, uihui, ohi, maua and sandalwood. His fruit trees are now in full production, minus a few macnut trees.

As his tillandsia and orchid collection grew, he needed more space to house them. With macnut prices plummeting on the market, he decided to remove part of the orchard to install housing for his air plants. Since his orchids were not happy in full sun all day, he built wire structures that allowed him to attach his tillandsia to the roof offering shade to the orchids on the benches.

Into the wire roof, he also installed an irrigation system that made it possible for him to mist his plants automatically for short periods throughout the day. Using the iCloud, he was able to set up a system that operated on its own, based on weather data. His maintenance-free plants are now almost completely hands-free as well.

With time to spare, Peter increased his pollination practice to include cross pollinating and experimenting with hybridizing. Without the hummingbird, the usual tillandsia pollinator, in Hawaii, Peter learned early on that hand pollination was necessary to get his plants to produce seeds.

The absence of the hummingbird in the state is the result of a ban placed on these birds to preserve the pineapple crop. One of the favorite flowers of the hummingbird is the pineapple. Pineapple farmers did not want this bird pollinating their pineapples as it would result in dry segments throughout the fruit, containing seeds. Hence a statewide ban was passed and is still in effect.

From necessity, Peter perfected his propagation skills by practicing pollination and cross pollination. By transferring pollen from one species to the stamen of a different species he began producing some uniquely beautiful hybrid tillandsia. Though he often sold plants at Big Island sales like Kona Outdoor Circle’s Pua Plantasia and the annual Big Island nurseryman’s sale in Hilo, the popularity of his specimens skyrocketed in 2014.

That year he displayed some of his favorites at the 21st World Bromeliad Conference at the Ala Moana Hotel in Honolulu. Buyers and collectors from around the world became instant clients and once the ports re-open he’ll resume shipping his tillandsia to Asian destinations like Japan, China, Thailand and the Philippines.

The popularity was bittersweet for Peter who claims, “I love my plants, I never really wanted to sell them, but I had to. I needed the space for more plants.”

And more keep coming, though extreme patience is required. Once a tillandsia flower is pollinated, the seeds may not ripen for nearly six months to a year and a half. Once planted, a tillandsia seedling can take five to 30 years to reach full size and maturity.

Even the young plants do well with little care, especially in a relatively dry climate like the Kona Coast. Tillandsia have what are called floral trichomes, which are tiny plants hairs or scales that collect moisture form the air. The resulting gray-green appearance distinguishes them as well as other drought tolerant species.

Once they germinate, Peter places the tiny tillandsia plants on cork slabs attached to several fences in a protected area behind the DeMello’s house. As they get bigger, he’ll place young tillandsia in a porous bed of clay pellets that drains very well while allowing a little moisture to remain in the root zone. With periodic misting on dry days, they keep on growing, albeit very slowly.

Daily cloud cover along with the shade from the roof top tillandsia and occasional misting, the orchids are also thriving in Peter’s wire houses. Though not literally air plants, orchids do best growing in loose aerated media like chunky coconut coir or bark rather than soil. Peter’s large orchid collection includes many interesting specimens throughout his property as well as some vanilla plants. These also require human pollination in order to produce their beans.

Depending on which plants are blooming, pollination can take several hours a day. Peter usually spends six to eight hours daily in the garden, mostly early or late in the day or during a cloudy period. Like his orchids, he prefers a little cloud cover. These hours are easily filled with pollinating and hybridizing along with the usual garden chores of weeding, fertilizing, checking for pests, treating problems and harvesting.

He occasionally gets help from his wife, Kay and his dogs, Liko and Lani, who are a crucial part of his operation. Liko is responsible for keeping all the chickens, pheasants, turkeys, franklins, quails and chuckers from digging up the compost around his plants. She is a busy dog.

Monthly fertilizing is a regular part of Peter’s success story. He foliar feeds all the plants on his property with a balanced N-P-K fertilizer mixed at 1/4 strength. His spray contains soluble nitrogen, extracted from fish emulsion or organic sources other than urea, since urea is only available to plants when applied to the soil.

Time spent in his garden pays off for Peter as well as plants. “Sensing that my plants are happy is my favorite feeling.” Peter reports, “I love it when my plants look happy. After a rain when they are all smiling and singing, I feel great.”

For Peter, that happy feeling comes easily with plants that are so care-free and beautiful. Tillandsia can offer anyone a good chance at gardening success.

Peter reports that, in Kona, “You can literally throw a tillandsia over your shoulder and ignore it and it will grow.”

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Once businesses open up a bit, he’ll be ready to clear some space for new plants. If you want to know more about his tillandsia or order some for yourself, you can email him at kuuki@aol.com.

Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living part time in Kailua-Kona.

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