Growing My Own Tree of Life

For the last three summers I have been growing airplants outside in the Jungle Garden. Secured to the branches of a tree in dappled shade, they’ve added texture and interest where otherwise there was little else to amuse. In spite of their small size they have always attracted comment: few people expect to see these naturally arboreal exotics growing outdoors in the UK.

Before taking the plunge with airplants I sought advice from specialist nurserymen, in order that that my alfresco experiment would have the best chance of success. Some varieties are better suited to our relatively cool, wet climate than others, so it seemed wise to ask someone with experience. Without exception the airplants I was recommended have done brilliantly well, bulking up into healthy clumps that have allowed me to create a more impressive display each summer. Rather than struggling, I find they perform better outside between the months of May and November than do indoors for the rest of the year. None of them has flowered, but that does not particularly bother me. I am sure they’ll bloom in their own good time. When they do it’ll be an extra treat.

Tillandsia bergeri is well suited to the British climate in summer.

Spurred on by my success with airplants (species of the genus Tillandsia) I decided to have a go with a couple of bromeliads. These seemed very happy in a warm, sheltered position by my outdoor kitchen sink, producing colourful flower spikes that drew much attention at last year’s open garden weekend.

Aechmeas either side of the kitchen sink provide a touch of exotic glamour

When a third, bargain-bucket bromeliad found its way into the cleft trunk of my bay tree, an idea was born – the idea of creating my own ‘Tree of Life’. The tree would play host to orchids, ferns, creepers and rosette-forming plants, just as a rainforest tree might. My challenge was how to achieve this in a small courtyard garden on the eastern tip of England. By the time I visited Miami in April I had already resolved to make the Tree of Life one of my main plant experiments of 2019 and here, on the shady streets of Buena Vista, I found all the inspiration I needed.

Trees dripping with ferns, bromeliads, airplants and aroids are a common sight in suburban Miami

Regular readers will recall that my usual airplant host tree, a handsome Santa Cruz ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. aspleniifolius), blew down in March. A new home had to be found for my collection, otherwise it faced a summer languishing inside. Over the years my Japanese green olive (Phillyrea latifolia) has become evermore beautifully branched. This seemed like the perfect time to start using it as a framework for tree-dwelling plants, given the canopy is now high and open, offering plenty of dappled shade beneath.

I quickly realised that in a bigger tree, three or four clumps of tillandsia were not going to make much of an impression, so I went online to buy a few more. Concerned that they’d all look a little similar in colour and texture, I wrote to Alex at Crafty Plants to enquire whether bromeliads might work in a similar situation. Alex recommended a selection from the genus Neoregelia, bromeliads which hail from the South American rainforests.

Aechmea ‘Brazil’ at Sweetbriar, the garden of Steve Edney and Louise Dowell

When my plants arrived they were a little smaller than I had anticipated. However they turned out to be the perfect size for the natural clefts in my tree’s branches. Carefully packed in with damp sphagnum moss, they held tight to the tree. The Beau directed me as I arranged the offsets in pairs, so as to give the impression they had sprouted on the tree naturally.

Still there were not enough plants to create the feeling of abundance and exuberance I’d witnessed in Miami, so I went online to find some larger specimens. From Fox Farm Bromeliads in Cornwall came three very choice neoregelia, two of which had roots and one of which was a freshly cut offset (neoregelia mainly use roots to anchor themselves to their host, rather than to absorb nutrients, so they are not essential for the plant’s survival). These new bromeliads with their reddish stripes and splashes were positioned higher up (cue an assortment of crudely psuedo-balletic poses to get them in place) where they would catch the early morning sun.

Neoregelia ‘Kahala Dawn’ from Fox Farm Bromeliads

Placement done, it’s now a case of misting with rainwater throughout the summer and hoping they will grow a little. My earlier ‘plantings’ seem to be doing well, despite very little further attention. It has rained regularly and heavily through July, which has helped them to feel at home.

Purely for theatrics, I am tempted to add a couple of orchids ahead of my garden opening. I’m keen to avoid ubiquitous white and pink butterfly orchids, as they definitely don’t look like they belong outside: I can only push the tropical illusion so far. An orchid with smaller, spidery flowers would be just the job if I could find one at short notice.

Tillandsia albida

Should you feel inspired to create your own Tree of Life, here are a few pointers based on my own experience:

  1. Choose wisely – not all airplants and bromeliads are suitable for outdoor cultivation, even during the hottest of our summers. Those from higher altitudes where conditions are cooler and wetter will be better adapted to our climate than those from tropical lowlands. Seek advice before investing in plants and you’ll get the best value for your money.
  2. Be patient – Don’t rush to get your plants outside in spring. Wait until both days and nights are safely above 10ºC, even if that means waiting until July. In autumn bring your airplants and bromeliads back inside well before the first frosts. They may grow slowly at first, but should take off after a few seasons.
  3. Hold on tight – Epiphytes produce roots to anchor themselves onto trunks and branches. They need to be held firmly in place, in direct contact with non-peeling bark, in order to make a strong bond. Utilise natural clefts and pack with moss, or hold in place using string or soft aluminium wire. Avoid cutting into stem and leaves. Any movement will prevent roots from forming, so watch carefully to make sure plants are not disturbed or dislodged by rain or wind.
  4. Get the light right – Living in trees, epiphytic plants tend not to be accustomed to direct sunlight. However they generally enjoy bright or dappled shade with spells of direct sunshine in the early morning or evening. Few will cope with deep shade or midday sun. Check when you buy your plants as their preferences may vary.
  5. The right kind of water – Both bromeliads and tillandsia prefer rainwater to tap water. Although tap water might suffice in an emergency – certainly better than no water – it should not be used regularly, especially if you live in a hard water area as I do. If you are planning to grow a number of epiphytes, a water butt will be essential in order to provide a regular supply. Keep in mind that both groups of plants hate to be wet and cold. During a very soggy summer they may be better off indoors or brought into shelter temporarily until the worst is over. TFG.

Neoregelia ‘Treasure Chest’ from Fox Farm Bromeliads

Plant List

  1. Tillandsia aeranthos
  2. Tillandsia aeranthos ‘Bronze’
  3. Tillandsia bergeri 
  4. Tillandsia albida 
  5. Tillandsia schiediana 
  6. Neoregelia ‘Fireball’
  7. Neoregelia schultessiana ‘Variegata’
  8. Neoregelia ‘Atlantis’
  9. Neoregelia ‘Kahala Dawn’
  10. Neoregelia ‘Piemento’
  11. Neoregelia ‘Treasure Chest’

My tillandsia in their original host tree, photographed last summer.