A Frugal Life

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This is my air plant, specifically Tillandsia bulbosa, native to Belize and Guatemala. The twisted branches fascinate me, the way they seem to be searching the air for something, anything, to live on: rainwater, leaf debris, bird droppings, dust. These are not needy plants. Weeks of neglect will leach their color and turn them spongy, but after a long soak in a bowl of tap water, they are firm and strong again. They can even do without their tuft of roots, which only serve as an anchor. Everything they need is absorbed through the suction scales that line their branches. Day and night, these plants are ready, accepting whatever windfalls come their way. If drought occurs, they simply shrink and wait.

Spanish moss, another type of Tillandsia, doesn’t bother with roots. It just drapes itself over a limb and hangs there, resisting nothing. Rain washes the nutrients off the leaves of the tree, and the moss catches this nourishing rainwater in its tiny cupped scales. Like the canary in the coal mine, Spanish moss is so proficient at absorbing elements that analysis of local specimens can reveal the extent of metallic pollution.

Bulbosas bloom just once before dying, but as their rainbow flowers emerge, they send out “pups,” baby plants attached to the mother’s base. In a year’s time, these new plants have plants of their own, and so the clumps can grow large and luxurious, the living and the dying in perfect accord.

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Willing. Resourceful. Irrepressible. I’m learning a lot from this plant.

Published by

Jean Ryan

Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. She has also published a novel, LOST SISTER. Her short story collections, SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, are available online. STRANGE COMPANY, a collection of short nature essays, is available in paperback as well as digital and audio editions.

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