Hidden away at Sungei Tengah in Singapore is a serene air plant haven, aptly titled ‘Airvatar’, managed by Tillandsia enthusiast Daniel Goh. A senior financial consultant by day, Daniel makes time to tend to his plant collection daily, and regularly runs workshops to spread his joy for air plants, sharing knowledge while highlighting its aesthetic qualities.
Daniel’s air plants are neatly laid out and well presented. There is a lot to take in, with hundreds of plants on display yet it feels moderately minimalist. At Airvatar, Daniel showcases his plants, a collection amassed from places like Pick a Plant and other private air plant collectors in Singapore. Here, he also runs workshops and uses it as a space for visitors to experience the beauty of Tillandsia, inspiring them with the possibilities of decorating their homes with air plants.
I sat down with him to find out about his passion for air plants.
When did you begin taking an interest in gardening?
I was as young as 10 years old. In school, they used to get us to grow beans into bean sprouts. From then onwards I liked growing plants. But if you ask about when I started liking air plants, it was 6 to 7 years ago, when I got my first air plant. I thought it was very intriguing because it is a plant that doesn’t need soil to grow, and then I started my air plant collection.
What do you find intriguing about air plants?
It is an amazing plant to have because you can hang it by the window, or glue it onto a rock. But what really got me interested was as I started my collection, I realised that every plant is different. When you talk about species alone, there are around 3500 species of air plants. When you look at the varieties — the shapes, the sizes, the colours, the leaf structure, textures, they are all different. Singularly as a plant itself, it is very sculptural. When you put two separate plants side by side, they each look so different. That to me is like an art piece by itself. When you hang it up, it looks like a floating sculpture to me. That’s how it started for me, I was really, really amazed by air plants.
Subsequently I decided that I wanted to do more with just growing or collecting air plants, and that’s when I started designing. I used branches, rocks, materials that you can find from gardens or aquarium shops, and put them together and made art pieces with it. From then onwards, I called myself an air plant artisan and then I started doing this to share with people that air plants are not just a plant in itself, but it has a lot more dimension and aesthetic value. So it is no longer just growing plants but appreciating the aesthetics of the plant itself.
What made you start ‘Airvatar’?
As a collector, I have 200-300 species and hybrids, and I think, I want to share the beauty of air plants with people. When i first started, I grew them along my corridor so I had all my air plants hanging the whole stretch of my corridor – that’s about 8 metres long. I’m quite blessed to have a good corridor where I could display them. But one thing though, I could not possibly bring people to my house to view them, so only my close friends and relatives had the privilege to be invited to see it. But I wanted to share it with more people because I feel that the air plant is an amazing plant which should be appreciated as it’s such a good plant to grow.
Basically no soil is needed, this means it can be moved from place to place and is cleaner to grow. Especially for urban dwellers like us who live in apartments or HDBs, we have very small spaces. So air plants being air plants, it can be hanged or stacked, we can make use of small spaces just to grow air plants and without soil it is so much easier to care for. So I want to share with more people the beauty and ease of growing air plants. I have a constraint at home along my corridor, so I thought why not have a space that I can get people to come see for themselves, varieties of air plants that they may not be able see on the market which I can share with them.
The reason why I called it Airvatar is because I was inspired by Avatar, the movie, a different planet. I want people to come to Airvatar to look at all the air plants hanging everywhere… to really have that experience to say that they are in a different planet altogether and they will be able to see air plants in different shapes and sizes, surrounding them. From here they can get ideas and also bring these ideas home to grow air plants, as I have demonstrated. I also needed a space to exhibit the air plant displays that I’ve made. These are individual displays I have made over the years and I want to share with people that they can make displays with wood, rocks and so forth. So over here I also exhibit my displays.
So all up, I would say that Airvatar is an exhibition space, my workshop, and an experiential place for others to appreciate air plants.
Where would you advise beginners to start?
As a beginner it is good to choose species that are easier to grow, which we call beginner’s air plants. Species that are easier to grow are Ionanta, Cotton Candy, Aeranthos and Adreana. These are the common ones.
Could you share some air plant care tips?
Do you think your collection is complete? Are there any plants you are looking for to add to your collection?
I don’t think there will ever be a time where I can finish collecting all these species or hybrids. Reason being there are too many and there are probably some undiscovered species in Central or South America, deep in the jungle or somewhere in the desert where they are from. I would think that the most important thing for me is not to have all the species or hybrids. I think that even for the common ones, if you can grow them well, they have their own uniqueness and beauty and if you can grow a plant – even the most common ones – and you can grow them beautifully, to me that is one of the joys and pleasures. You don’t have to have all the species.
Have you attempted to cross pollinate any of your Tillandsia?
Well, I have to say I have yet to start. Probably that would be the next stage I would like to get into because I think it would be interesting to explore when you can create your own hybrids, but the process itself as I understand is going to be very time consuming. It’s going to take me a lot of patience — from pollination to harvesting the seeds and germinating the seeds. It’s going to take years. At this point of time, I have not started but it would be a good next step to explore.
Thank you for sharing so much with me, Daniel, I’ve learned a lot! To find out more about Daniel Goh and Airvatar, or to sign up for his workshops, find him at Air Plant Artisan on Instagram and Living on Air on Facebook. Make an appointment to visit him at Airvatar if you would like to view a large collection of air plants in Singapore!