Living on Air

An obsession with epiphytes leads to an ASLA Student Award.

By Katarina Katsma, ASLA

Courtesy Brandon Cornejo, Student ASLA.

Brandon Cornejo, Student ASLA, wants to use epiphytes—plants that grow on other plants or materials and derive their nutrients from the air—to green the world. His project, “Feasibility Study of the Integration of Epiphytes in Designed Landscapes,” won the Award of Excellence in Research in the 2016 ASLA Student Awards. It measured whether rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis), a type of epiphyte, could grow on building materials typical to the urban environment. With just a few cuttings, Cornejo was able to find that this plant group has the potential to cover much of the city if you turn it loose.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

You’re currently working at Raymond Jungles, Inc. in Miami. Has your work with epiphytes influenced the work that you’re doing now?

It’s funny because I interviewed and said, “Oh, I’m part of a bromeliad society.” Bromeliads are a huge group of epiphytes. Right now there’s actually a problem in Miami Beach because of Zika and its relationship with mosquitoes and their relationship with bromeliads. A lot of media in South Florida have incorrectly portrayed bromeliads as breeding grounds for Aedes aegypti. Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus are the two mosquitoes known for spreading Zika. I’m doing research for Raymond to prove that there are two other native species of mosquitoes that outcompete Aedes. The Miami Beach Botanical Garden actually ripped out all of its bromeliads because of this frenzy and misdirection by the media and by local officials. I recently gave a presentation at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden about the mosquito, Zika, and bromeliad relationship.

People are blaming a single plant species or a single plant genus when really there’s research showing that only 1 percent of all the mosquitoes that breed out of bromeliads are Zika-carrying. There are more issues with managing water here in Miami than flora.

Photo courtesy of Brandon Cornejo, Student ASLA.
Courtesy Brandon Cornejo, Student ASLA.

What gave you the original idea to look into epiphytes as a possible design medium?

I’ve always been interested in plants, especially plants with very unusual forms. I grew up in Southern California, and I didn’t really travel that much. One way I traveled through high school was vicariously through plants. I really got into epiphytes. I went to school at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. That’s central California, and it had good proximity to Santa Barbara. Every year, Santa Barbara has an orchid show in which people from around the world come to sell, showcase, and share orchids. I was inspired by that. In Southern California there is a nursery called Rainforest Flora that grows air plants. There’s so much diversity in that genre.

How do you see the use of epiphytes in landscape architecture?

I’m annoyed with the idea of green walls.

The idea of having to put soil and engineer ways to put soil where soil really doesn’t naturally occur—I think there are other ways. Just look at how plants grow and where these plants are from—a lot of these plants grow on the sides of mountains where there’s no soil. I think that’s a more natural solution. I’m a big proponent of vines. Vines are actually better for use in urban environments where there is some soil. But a lot more vines grow really fast and cover more quickly than epiphytes.

Do you see this as the more natural approach to greening the vegetative environment?

In certain locations. They rely a lot on water. In places without a lot of water you’re probably not going to see as much greenery. In places like Miami, where epiphytes just naturally grow on the sides of palm trees, this would totally work. We don’t have to spend all this money for extra beefing up beams to hold up all the soil and the water weight that’s associated with soil. We can just grow plants that naturally grow on air.

What about colder climates with less water? Are there alternative plants or methods?

Some epiphytes fill larger habitats, and some are very specific. By looking into which epiphytes do better over greater ranges, I think that’s a way to be expansive where they can be. The habitat of Spanish moss is expanding because of global warming. As places get less cold during the winter, we see occurrences of Spanish moss happening farther north of where they typically would be.

Photo courtesy of Brandon Cornejo, Student ASLA.
Courtesy Brandon Cornejo, Student ASLA.

What surprised you the most from working on this project?

I didn’t think I was going to be able to see [plant growth] in the short amount of time I had, but it happened. I was pretty shocked. There were other plants that I thought of using, but the germination of some of these things is slow. Just acquiring some of the seeds—you don’t really buy seeds of epiphytes commonly. Obviously the nurseries that grow Tillandsia or air plants aren’t going to give me seeds. This was such a surprise to me when the cutting actually showed leaves. Because instead of just seedling reproduction, which I thought would be the only way, vegetative reproduction is possible too in certain species.

What kind of potential do you think this medium holds for the future?

I think as human developments increase and we are taking away habitats, I think our urban environments can become conservatories for biodiversity.

Where rain forests are being cut down for agriculture, landscape architecture can intervene and create artificial surfaces for epiphytes to grow on, creating canopy habitat for organisms that would otherwise be affected by what we put on the land.

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