Julian and Jessica Tokarev's Love of Airplants
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Air, Land and Sea
By Jordan Venema
Photos by Tamara Orth
With its tentacle-like leaves, the common Airplant looks like something sooner from the surface of another planet than the soil in the ground. Or maybe it looks better suited for the desert, or perhaps even the depths of the ocean, than hanging above the kitchen sink – where so many people enjoy displaying these trending greens. The Airplant could be compared to a succulent for its resilience, or to an orchid for its ethereal beauty, but the Airplant is otherwise as unique and exotic as the name of its genus.
Tillandsia sounds more like the name of an elven forest from the pages of Tolkien than the genus of about 730 species of evergreen, perennial flowering plants. But the Tillandsia genus – or Airplant – is far from fairytale.
When Julian Tokarev was single and trying to liven up his barren bachelor pad – “it had absolutely no life,” he says with a laugh – he discovered the Airplant in a magazine, and bought a few for his home. “It didn’t go so well,” says his wife Jessica.
“I’ll confess to that,” Julian admits. “Unfortunately, I killed them.”
That was before his wife’s gentle touch, of course, but even she’ll admit she’s no green thumb. In fact, Jessica says she hates gardening. But both she and Julian loved the Airplant, and it became something of a hobby.
Despite Julian’s early mishaps with the plant (and we’ll chalk that up to youth), both Jessica and Julian decided to continue growing the plants, and even incorporate dozens of them into their wedding arrangement, bouquet and centerpieces.
“Of course, though,” says Jessica, “after the wedding was over, we had all these things around,” and so the newly married couple decided to turn their growing hobby into a budding business.
In August 2013, just a few months after their wedding, the couple launched Plant in the Air, a homegrown business that sells the Tillandsia plants online.
Like the plants they sell, the Tokarevs’ unique approach has set their business apart from other Tillandsia vendors. Not only does the couple grow their own plants here in Visalia, but they design and build planters and containers. “Yeah, they’re created by us, made by us in a shed in our backyard,” says Jessica.
The Tokarevs also hope to keep their plants and planters accessible to customers by keeping costs down, “so we can share the fun that we found in them when we got married,” explains Jessica. The typically high cost of Airplants can be prohibitive to buyers.
With more than 700 plants in the genus, there’s certainly a continuum of rarity, but the majority of Plant in the Air’s product hovers in the single-digit dollars, many of which they sell at the Visalia Farmers’ Market. The Tokarevs also sell more rare, more exotic Tillandsia, which can be found on their website, and costs upwards of $100. The planters, which they build themselves, range between $6 and $10.
Typically, plants are sedentary things, planted, potted, stationary, rooted. But Airplants, like their name suggests, come without any of those strings – or roots – attached. Since the soilless plants typically grow in rough, rocky terrain or shifting sands, the plant is both drought resistant and able to absorb water and nutrients through the leaves.
Care for the plants, then, is relatively simple. “They can go a week or so without water,” says Julian. “They’re a low maintenance plant for sure.” Airplants can be transplanted easily, moved from place to place, and only require misting and the occasional soak, about an hour once a week. Like most plants, they’ll want light, but Plant in the Air containers offer unique ways to display your plants while getting them plenty of sun.
While Julian and Jessica Tokarev consider their Tillandsia both a business and a hobby, they are also passionate about preservation, and spreading the word to their customers. “A big issue in the Tillandsia world is overcollection,” clarifies Jessica. Many of these plants come from rainforests in Mexico and Guatemala, where some plants are gathered either illegally or without a mind for conservation. By growing their own plants, the Tokarevs obviously are not contributing to the problem of overcollection, but “we’re still making it our mission to educate people where they come from.”
True to their company’s name, the Tillandsia is an up-in-the-air plant, easy to move and market, which has created a growing demand. And while these little plants are easy to sell to wide and diverse markets (thanks to the plants’ durability and the wonders of internet), the Tokarevs stress, “we don’t want to be in our own Plant in the Air world and not help or share or communicate or connect with others.”
Last month, they began partnering with a nonprofit called Rainforest Alliance, to which the Tokarevs will make monthly donations. The Rainforest Alliance TREES program (Training, Extension, Enterprising, and Sourcing) provides “tropical plant suppliers and other forest-based businesses with access to training, resources, and techniques for sustainable farming practices.”
Through conservation, ingenuity, and commitment
to customers, Plant in the Air is ensuring that, other than its plants, nothing is left in the air. That way, the Tillandsia can continue to be found in their natural habitat, as much as they are, up in the air, on display in your own home.•
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