The Annual Buying (and subsequent killing) of the Air Plant and Plumeria Stick


    Guest Rant by Wendy Kiang-Spray

    Having been to the Philadelphia Flower Show for many years in a row now, my annual trip has taken on a really wonderful rhythm and familiarity. My friend Grace is tiny and swift. Herwendy at philly show job is to zip in and out through the crowds while I try to follow via the path she carves. Every year, we begin by ooohing and aaahing over the big artistic landscaping exhibits on the right. Then, we meander through the porch, window box, jewelry, and other displays, agreeing with the judges’ critiques, but always qualifying our agreement with, “Of course…we couldn’t do any better”. Lunch happens seated on the floor against a back wall and only when we’re starved. Next we go and see the succulents and houseplants near the front entrance of the show, commenting on how well-loved these old and incredible houseplants are and wondering what the gardeners are like. Just before the quickest-wine-tasting-ever, we split up for about 45 minutes to do our own shopping in the market place.

    Every now and then, a new store pops up with beautiful products that make me gasp. On very rare occasions, I come across a new plant I’ve never seen before. Sometimes I go in with a specific purchase I want to make. During our trip yesterday, I strolled and strolled with nothing in particular jumping out at me. With five minutes before wine-tasting time, I decided I had to buy something, quick. What would that be? Of course! A tillandsia and a plumeria cutting – a little green air plant and that crazy-looking plumeria stick. I was practically laughing as I ran around searching for those two shops I visit every year.

    It made me laugh because every single year, I buy an air plant and a plumeria stick. Every year I listen to the growing instructions, none of them sounding familiar. For the plumeria, I should water once every three weeks until leaves emerge. Or maybe it was water once a week until three leaves emerge.  Despite good intentions, my air plant and plumeria stick die every year.

    I actually laughed so much that I posted about this incident on Facebook. My friend Shirley tagged her sister who also has what she calls “plumeria shame”. Apparently, I’m not the only one who has purchased one of these alien-looking sticks at flower shows and could not bring it to life.

    So why this annual buying and subsequent killing of the air plant and plumeria? The air plant has that spiky elegance and supposed easy care requirement. The plumeria flower has a simple tropical beauty, an intoxicating fragrance, and – aloha  – leis are made with them. Plus, the fact that I can throw it in a bag, roll it up, and stick it in my purse for the 3 hour ride back home is helpful.

    The reality is, the flower show happens at a good time of the year. It’s when I’m suffering from wintertime amnesia and forget every garden failure from the previous year. Right now it’s all shiny gardening catalogs, elaborate flower shows, and my own lofty plans for spring. The pictures in my head of lush green leaves and colorful blooms are as palpable as the melting snow. This is why I raced for the plumeria stick and the air plant. See, I can’t even remember how I killed these plants last year, or the year before, or the year before. Maybe I messed up the watering. Maybe the pot was too small. Maybe it was just a fluke. Whatever the reason, I just re-read the same pamphlet I get every year with the plumeria. It’s supposed to need watering twice a week for the first two months. OK. I got it this time. This year, I’ll get those amazing blooms. But if not, I know where I’ll be able to buy more next year!

    Wendy Kiang-Spray is a freelance garden writer and is working on her first book about growing and cooking Chinese vegetables.  She gardens in Rockville, Maryland and volunteers with the DC Master Gardeners.


    1. Sometimes, we are better off growing what does best in our particular outdoor climate. Here in southern CA, plumeria is easily grown where it gets the warmth it needs for bloom & I see many that are 12″ tall. I long to be able to grow the peonies my mother easily grew in CT & OR, but even with buckets of ice dumped on them, peonies rarely grow well here. What I can grow & grow well here are freesias, all sorts of grevilleas, coprosmas, flaxes & succulents. Tillandsias too.

      I understand the desire to push the envelope, but after a while, why waste the money & more importantly, your time?

      • Good point. I tend to not push the zones. Unlike my friends who dig up dahlias, bring in lemon trees during the winter, etc. That is something I tend to neglect due to time. I think I’m tricked into the ease that these 2 plants appear to have, and of course the sales pitch – “Just water once a week” or whatever they say as they gently place a basket of plumeria blooms in your face.

    2. I enjoyed your story. It reminds me of how I negotiate landscape, flower, and orchid shows.
      As for the annual plumeria tillandsia buying and killing: we all have our traditions and rituals. Mine is buying plants not in bloom and waiting, waiting, waiting for flowers that sometimes never appear.
      It is amusing that neither of your chosen plants look particularly plant-like upon purchase. The tillandsia seems to attract people because it seems more like a pet. It seems easy because it doesn’t appear to need a lot of care, but actually it needs very specific care and usually more than anticipated. For example: “Just mist everyday, submerge every week for 15 minutes.” The plumeria, on the other hand, needs warmth, sunshine, and good drainage to get going not something that you may have if it is still wintry where you live. It may take anywhere from 90 days to 5 weeks to root. Once rooted and happy, plumerias can grow quickly. If you successfully rooted grew your plumeria, could you justify buying another the next year? What would happen to your ritual?

    3. A friend went on a cruise to Hawaii last fall. She brought me back a plumeria stick. I stuck it in cactus mix and watered it once a month. It is showing signs of life. Whoo hoo!

      • I did adjust my planting medium this time… while I’ve always just used a potting soil, this time I mixed potting soil with some orchid growing medium (mostly bark), so hopefully there will be some progress with the plumeria. I will say each year, I’ve gotten closer and closer. Last year, I had a few leaves on that thing!

    4. Saw the cutest micro tillandsia that appeared to have been hot glued to a lovely piece of bark conveniently equipped with a handy hanger at West Elm last week. Almost succumbed to it’s allure but figured it would surely croak under my indifferent care and that was 14 bucks I could probably retain for a few more minutes.

    5. For me it’s Orchid plants; I love them all and buy the really pretty ones. I have yet to get one to rebloom, we have Charlie Nardoozi here and he also gives tips. #plantfails

    6. I live in Pennsylvania and have grown Plumerias here before. I had them for 5 yrs before sadly, they just got too big to bring inside.
      I just picked up more again this year and plan to find or build a temporary outdoor winterizing greenhouse for the new ones when they get too big. Here’s hoping!


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