Mr. Cuffel over at https://cuffelfarms.com/ is an air plant collector, seller, mad scientist, and legendary nice-guy. He spent some time talking with us and answering all our questions and then some. Join us as he takes us deep inside the Tillandsia industry.
Air Plant Alliance: Thanks again for talking with us, I know you are very busy! Can you give us a little background on who you are, what you do, and what you're hoping to achieve with regards to air plants?
Mr. Cuffel: I am a San Diego native, grew up in a rural corner of the county called Valley Center. I didn't actually grow up around plants or having a strong curiosity about them, but I was a dirt kid, so I spent most free hours of the day outside building jumps and forts, taking care of animals, and using our riding lawn mower as an off road recreational vehicle. It wasn't really until my mid-twenties that I started being interested in and collecting ornamental plants. To that point, I had received a degree in Economics from San Diego State (barely), and had worked at the YMCA for about 7 years. I had began dabbling in succulents shortly before I bought my first house in 2012. I wasn't digging the landscaping of the house so I started looking for easy-to-care-for plants.
Succulents were something of a gateway drug for me, I was really getting into them until a friend gave me my first air plant: Tillandsia aeranthos. It was mounted on a piece of wood, an unusual way for a plant to be displayed in my opinion. To my knowledge, plants belonged in the ground or in pots. Curious about what the hell I was now responsible for, I started researching what the heck this was and how to keep it alive. I was quickly fascinated by how these plants seemed to grow, and within a week I had ordered a variety pack of 20 more on Amazon. Curiosity quickly became obsession- there were so many shapes, and sizes, and colors, what a crazy plant! The purchasing continued, to the point where I was going to have to start making decisions about whether the last of my paycheck was going to food or plants (plants, duh). It was at that time, in 2016, I put up my first Craigslist ad for air plants. My setup consisted of a folding table on my back patio with loose plants scattered about it.
I left the Y shortly after that (after 11 years) and did a brief stint at UC San Diego. After a year at UC San Diego, a funding cut left me without a job, so I focused more energy on selling plants while I looked for a new job. After about 6 months I stopped looking for a job; I was a plant man now, it was time to accept my calling. Two and a half years later, I've found a way to survive by playing with plants, and I don't let a day go by without thinking about how unlikely this was to work out.
I have a nursery people can visit by appointment in San Diego and online. I do consulting, design, and installation of interior plantscaping projects and living walls for residences, commercial buildings, and restaurants. I host plant parties and other educational workshops for private and public groups, teaching people about a variety of different plants and teaching them a hands-on skill, creating something they can take home, care-for, and enjoy. Lastly, I design and create pieces and arrangements for weddings and other events, available to rent or to buy. I've explored a lot of other avenues this business could venture down, but it seems that no matter what I do, everything always comes back to wanting to play with Tillandsia, so I'm really trying to lean into that and focus on being really good at the few things I do.
I am a collector first and foremost. While this business was partly born out of necessity because my collecting was out of control, it really stemmed from a desire to correct some of the imbalance I saw within the industry. When I started collecting, Tillandsia were not widely available online. Most plants you did see did not tell you how big the plant was you were getting, or would show you one size and send another, or the quality of the plant was poor. I also felt like it was difficult to find information online about specific plants- where they come from and how to care for them. So with my online store, I've really made it a priority to be honest and transparent. You will not see a plant on my site that doesn't list the specific size, country of origin when known, description of the bloom, and relevant details I have ascertained. I will also talk people out of buying certain plants when they visit if I don't think what they've selected is right for where they want to put it. It is more important to me to give honest and accurate information and fair pricing than anything else in my business, and I hope that shows when people shop with me.
Your younger years seem pretty similar to mine- I was reminded of jumping bikes and building Woodsman's Forts in large cypress trees with my dad! I also think your air plant background is pretty common- learn about them out of the blue one day, become fascinated, never look back. For whatever reason, air plants don't seem to be in the public consciousness like some other plants. Despite being easy to grow, fascinating, and soil-less, why do you think Tillandsia don't seem to have the same large following as orchids or succulents, say? I understand that plants are like anything else, in that they are susceptible to trends, but this seems like a bigger issue- am I wrong?
I see a few things happening that I find troublesome and potentially limiting for the popularity of and interest in Tillandsia. I think, to their own detriment, air plants are seen as very cute and adorable, which they can be, but I think that pushes them into this category of "accessory" rather than a living thing to be cared-for. I think another thing that gives them this perception is that many people have had them and killed them, or had them for a long time and they feel they haven't grown. This right here is the key to the bigger issue: misinformation. These plants will never reach their maximum popularity and visibility if they continue to be sold as houseplants and if the importance of air flow is not stressed in the care process. These are not meant to be nor do they prefer to be houseplants, but most places do not provide that disclaimer. It of course makes them harder to sell when a huge part of the market interested in them is wanting to keep them inside, but the reality is if you want big, strong, healthy, fast growing plants, you will need to keep your plants outside or in a greenhouse of some kind. They are very hard to keep happy and healthy long term if they exclusively live in a household environment. I make it clear to everyone that walks through my gate that these plants will be happier outside than inside; this doesn't mean you can't keep them inside, but I personally take care of my ones inside pretty differently than my ones outside.
If we can correct the misinformation campaign about the right environments for these plants, we may lose a segment of folks interested in them along the way, but I believe there is a huge market of people out there not yet familiar with them that don't know what they're missing out on, and that's personally who I'm really excited about meeting.
I agree about indoor growing- I've had bad luck with it unless I also use a grow light, and the chances of rot are really high indoors. I have rotted a beautiful and extremely rare crested T. ionantha before. I'm interested to hear about some of your growing failures or some of the simple lessons you've learned along the way. What was your hugest Tillandsia Fail?
I will try and keep it brief as there is no shortage of things that have gone wrong in my growing of and care for these plants. It's actually pretty funny to me, people have this perception of me that because I am a "plant guy," I've got this all figured out and I don't ever kill plants. Moreover, they are embarrassed to tell me that they killed a plant. I have committed plant genocide over the last decade, not on purpose of course, but it happens to all of us! My background is not in horticulture as you know, so I'm very much still learning as I go.
There is a perception, thanks in large part to social media and online plant groups, that these plants' natural state is to be big, plump, healthy, and well manicured. The reality is, the people who are showing you these big beautiful healthy plants are experts, and they work tirelessly to grow these plants in optimal conditions at all times. If you look at Tillandsia in nature, they are not well manicured, and the trichomes are damaged, and some leaves are burned, etc. I've come to be much more forgiving of myself for the condition of my plants, because while I care deeply about them, I am also still learning them, and how they respond to my exact micro climate, and how to best advise others on plant selection and care based on their environment.
At the beginning of this year I rotted my biggest, oldest xerographica after a heavy rain. It is nestled in a Plumeria, and I didn't empty it out after the rain which I normally do. Sure enough, a week later, I started to see a strangely vibrant blush on the center leaves, and I knew. I am actually pleased with how calm I stayed; that's another thing I've learned through this experience. Simply acquiring a plant does not award you a lifetime license to own it; you have to nurture and care for it, and there is no guarantee of success. These, like us, are impermanent. Some will have an easier time surviving, some will be gone too soon; try not to get too attached and just enjoy each moment you get to be in its presence.
Because I first believed these plants were best enjoyed as houseplants (yes, they tricked me too) early on, I had this perception that my air plants would essentially melt or spontaneously combust if I gave them any direct light. I obviously came to learn that not only can they handle some direct light; here in my climate, some prefer it, a lot of it! Realizing the diverse needs of the plants in the genus Tillandsia was an eye-opening experience. When I really thought about it, of course they all need something a little different, I just didn't realize how different a mesic (tropical) plant was from a xeric (dry climate) plant.
Air flow is the most important component of a Tillandsia's success and well-being. I always understood light and watering to be the main components of plant care, but Tillandsia (and most epiphytes for that matter) rely heavily on air flow. With rot being so prevalent, air flow becomes the key component in ensuring a plant doesn't stay wet for too long, and it gives the trichomes access to fresh, moving air particles they can extract moisture from.
I learned a very painful lesson about soaking in fertilized water a few years ago with a xerographica x streptophylla hybrid. As you probably know, epiphyte fertilizer is typically high in nitrogen and potassium. Nitrogen is often responsible for leaf burn in high concentrations, so if you soak you have to really dilute the fertilizer (like, a tenth of the recommended ratio). I did dilute my mixture, BUT I wanted to soak for an hour, forgot to set a timer, and soaked it for 10 hours. I burned the shit out of the leaves, leaving big brown spots all over the faces of the leaves. It has since gone through a bloom and the pups are all growing in nice, but for about 18 months that plant was pretty unhappy thanks to my negligence. Glad she was kind enough to forgive me and carry on despite me.
Lots of lessons learned, but I feel those are a few that I not only learned from in the moment, but have continued to guide my care of my own plants and the way I support others in their learning.
That reminds me of a joke I heard recently about unhealthy Instagram beauty standards...for plants! You've nailed it though- take a look at any wild Tillandsia and you'll probably see some broken leaves, wonky shapes, burns, and more- but the plant is happy and healthy. This tells us that even in perfect growing conditions, stuff happens. Life is a terminal disease and will leave its marks. I've long given up trying to keep every single leaf on every single plant perfect- I just can't. I consider it success if my plants grow and reproduce. I do find that mounting my air plants tends to keep them in better condition though.
You've also hit on so many other important misconceptions: air plants cannot handle direct light, pros don't kill plants, they are perfect for indoors, ect. Where do you stand on soaking versus misting, assuming you lived in a climate where artificial watering is necessary? Also, for those of us in superhot (or supercold) climates like Arizona, we simply must grow indoors at least some of the year- besides general good habits of watering, light, and airflow, is there anything else we can do to improve the chances of indoor growing success?
I personally believe that soaking as a watering technique is best reserved as a rehydration strategy, not a regular watering method. This is especially true indoors. And keep in mind as I am typing this I am in Southern California, so take my words with some perspective.
I know for me personally, if I forget to water my houseplants for a while, I typically am a little heavy handed when I do eventually water again, because I am trying to compensate for what it did not get while I neglected it. That may be okay for houseplants, but for air plants this is dangerous. With rot being 95% of the reason air plants die, saturating an air plant in an environment with little to no air flow will almost certainly lead to rot if you don't take active measure to dry it out, and sometimes simply leaving it upside down is not enough. This is why I prefer misting 2-3 days a week as opposed to soaking. It allows me to ensure I am not hydrating the plant at a level that can cause rot, and it more closely mimics how they might get water naturally. Hearing 3x a week watering vs 1x week watering makes it sound like a big commitment, but I have found that 2-3 pumps of a spray bottle per plant 2-3x a week still takes less time than collecting all my plants, soaking, drying, and then returning to their homes. While light is important, for these plants, air flow is the most important component of success.
Artificial light can certainly work in place of natural light if the bulbs are designed for plant growing. Regular LED lights and fluorescent lights provide a small amount of usable light, but the wavelengths don't provide everything the plants need. I recommend for people growing in low light to supplement the growing environment with a grow light or moving the plants closer to a light source for about 25% of the time. I do not recommend moving the plant from low light to direct light without a transition period, apart from that these plants aren't super sensitive to being moved around a bit, I actually encourage it to help find the perfect spot.
The last thing I'll touch on is humidity. In general, there is almost always more moisture in the air outside than inside. This once again makes indoor growing harder, because plants indoors typically need more moisture, and yet they are sensitive to too much moisture. I know I sound like I'm trying to talk people out of soaking or growing inside, but I'm not. I'm really just trying to make it clear that it is more difficult to grow them and keep them happy indoors, but there are a couple things you can do to make it a little easier. Apart from making sure they dry out, occasional fertilizer and yearly manicuring will help contribute to long term health.
In my experience, especially in the summer, I feel like I could mist a Tillandsia 20 times a day, and it still wouldn't be enough water. It can become a balancing act in hot, dry weather because increasing the total number of wet/dry cycles a plant has also increases the chance of rot. I have had air plants both rot quickly and dehydrate to death quickly here in the summer. I think this only illustrates how differently air plants must be treated in different areas. Most of us are not growing these things in natural, perfect conditions, so we must do whatever it takes to keep them alive. I also think this is where some of the care confusion occurs- what works in San Diego might not be ideal for Phoenix. Trial and error has been by far my biggest teacher of Tillandsia care.
I think your honesty is appreciated by buyers- you'll not often see a seller explicitly saying that air plants are not ideally grown indoors. We need more of this kind of honest information from sellers, please keep it up.
I wanted to touch back on larger industry operations for a bit. Let's say I've just purchased an average T. Curly Slim from the average online seller. In generalities, could you describe the kind of journey that plant has taken from its birth to its arrival at my door? Where might it have come from? How many different greenhouses might it have been in? How many growers have typically had a hand in its upbringing? How does the process change for pups VS seeds?
I'd love to get a general rundown of the life of an air plant prior to purchase.
Ya, super important to consider that I am writing all of this from my own experience in my own climate, which is a pretty mild and forgiving one (San Diego, California). The main reason I discourage people from soaking is because of their propensity to rot afterwards. For experienced growers, soaking may be a regular part of their care regimen. I have soaked plants for almost 24 hours and had them healthy as ever on the other side, but it's only because I understood how important drying out immediately after was, and regularly providing good air flow. There are absolutely going to be people that have to soak. A plant can live a very happy and healthy life even if it is only ever soaked, it can just be a trickier method of watering due to the rot factor.
I love this question, for me it's so fun to consider things like this. Even something like a cup of coffee, when you really think about it, has an incredible journey before it arrives in your hands for under $3. Anyways, I would say here in the US, there are probably less than 10 true large-scale growers and distributors of Tillandsia in the US. Most of these folks do not even solely grow plants, most of those still do a tremendous amount of importing. So really, most of the Tillandsia we all end up with, both retailer and consumer, came from a South American country like Guatemala or Peru. The growing conditions are so ideal there, and land is so cheap, you can grow millions of plants for a fraction of the price and in less time than growing them here. Going back to what I was saying about the growers here in the US, I want to clarify my criteria. I do not consider myself in this category nor do I consider some of the other larger retailers in this criteria. Most places the average consumer is buying plants from is a reseller who may also grow some plants out for propagation or grow out small batches of seeds. I would put myself in this category.
I would say, on average, the average consumer is the 4th parent/guardian of the plant they buy. That's of course an average, but it likely went from a grower, to a wholesaler, to a reseller, to you. It has likely traveled at least 500 miles in its life, but an average would be closer to 3,000 miles.
With the amount of time and energy that goes into growing seeds, it doesn't really make economic sense for someone like me to grow seeds out to sell unless it is a rare plant or a new hybrid, and that is probably true for a lot of folks like me. Something like an ionantha Guatemala that you purchase from me for $1 would take me 3-4 years to grow from seed given my current setup (I do not have a greenhouse, I highly recommend a greenhouse for seed growing). But if you have a million seeds, which isn't hard to get from a small grex of plants, and you grow them out in Guatemala, in 18 months you've probably got 600,000 two inch tall Guats ready to go, that'll fetch you a nice reward.
Pup harvesting is a game everyone from grower to wholesaler to reseller can all get in on, as far as production/sale is concerned. Pups grow exponentially quicker and are generally hardier than seedlings because the mother plant was able to nurture their growth and provide everything they need whereas a seedling is dependent on its genetic material and what it receives from the environment around it. Using myself as an example, once a plant reaches the end of bloom, I usually pull it off the sales racks and move it to the growing area. I do this for two reasons: first, the plant is usually pretty tired after bloom and is beyond its peak beauty so it's not as desirable and second, it will take a year, but that plant increases in value for me because I will be able to harvest 2-4 or more pups from it and make those available. In only a year, they will be about the same size as the mother was at bloom (species dependent of course).
I am a super small fish in this pond, probably more like an algae growing on a rock. More than being the best at any one thing in this industry, I want to continue having an insatiable desire to learn and to share those learnings with others. The problem for me is I get so wrapped up in the learning and the doing that I don't create time and space to prepare materials, whether its social media posts, or YouTube videos, or printable resources to share with others, so that's a big part of my focus moving forward along with of course playing around with pollen and seeing if I can't produce something really neat.
It's a fascinating industry and Tillandsia selling is not so different from any other horticultural crop, even though the plants themselves are very different.
Your personal collection is mind-blowing. Do you have a holy grail, yet-to-be acquired? What kind of stuff is on the wish list of a guy like you? While we are at it, would you mind throwing down your lists of Easiest to Grow and Hardest to grow Tillandsia species?
Thanks man, it's been a lot of fun to acquire so many different species over the years. Because I was hesitant to buy pricey plants as I was just learning, and have a general philosophy that buying really expensive plants (in many cases justifiable, prices given the rarity of the genetics) isn't really what I'm about. I don't honestly have too many things that I regret buying or feel I overpaid for, I've kept it pretty reasonable to this point. I'd eventually like to get my hands on more of Mark Dimmitts' and John Arden's hybrids, they did some pretty neat things with really colorful species. Pam at Bird Rock has some cool hybrids I've had my eye on like T. Silverado (of course an Arden hybrid), which she makes available occasionally. Names of some other things I'd love to have at some point are: T. barfusii, T. bourgaei, T. carlsoniae, T. Charles McStravik (arequitae x duratii), T. Heidi Gulz (exserta x streptophylla), T. Sister Theresa (intermedia x caput-medusae), T. Tall Stranger (albida x streptophylla), T. Vickie Jane (flexuosa x chiapensis). What I'd love to do is take a trip over to Asia and do some shopping. In places like Taiwan there are some serious growers and hybridizers that are doing some amazing complex crossing (crossing a stabilized hybrid with another stabilized hybrid). Quite honestly, it feels to me like the US has been passed up in terms of innovation and evolution in the industry. But that's a conversation for another time. Unfortunately I don't know how easy it is to get plants back over here from Asia, so I may just have to focus more energy on doing some of this crossing myself and encourage others to do the same.
Easiest and hardest to grow is certainly climate/environment specific, but speaking from my own experience, here are some great places to start and a few things I would avoid.
Easier to grow:
aeranthos (not as easy indoors)
capitata peach (doesn't love temps below 45)
Harder to grow:
schiedeana (specifically indoors, easy outdoors)
xerographica (prone to rot, sensitive to cold)
Mr. Cuffel, you've given us tons of great information! It was awesome talking with you and I want to stress again how rare it is to find someone so approachable and kind in this industry or in any other. I also had a really great time visiting you in person and would highly recommend to anyone making an appointment to visit you or to check out your beautiful plants at https://cuffelfarms.com/. Keep up the great work!
One final request: tell us one of your favorite non-air plants! Here's one of mine- Bauhinia variegata (Purple Orchid Tree).
Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat, I really enjoyed it and I hope to continue to find new opportunities to learn, educate, and build community around these plants. My favorite non-air plant? Man, hard to pick just one. I'm going to break the rules and give you two. I really love my Jerusalem Rose. I love it because it's such a unique and resilient plant, plus it was a gift from a friend which makes it extra special. I'm also a huge fan of peaches; my peach tree produces insanely delicious peaches and my favorite time of year is harvesting those peaches. There are so many incredible plants, but those two are particularly special to me.