Sometimes innovation strikes by chance. Such was the case with David Tilley, Associate Professor in the Environmental Science & Technology Department at the University of Maryland, CEO of Living Canopies, and founder of the “Living Umbrella.”
Two years ago, Tilley was sitting on a sunny pool deck during a family vacation in Las Vegas. The blue skies and 110°F temperatures were making life miserable, and even drinking a cold beer didn’t work because the can was hot before he could take a sip.
“I noticed that a few other folks on the deck were like me — too hot and sun-baked — but they were crowding into the shade of the few plants that were on the deck,” Tilley says. “I looked around and wondered why there weren’t any patio umbrellas.”
And with that, the living umbrella seed was planted.
Early Buzz Creates Excitement
When Tilley returned home, he took the idea back to his colleagues at the University of Maryland. They pointed him to the Office of Technology Commercialization and the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on campus, which offered Tilley and his partners training on business start-ups.
“As part of the start-up, my team of graduate students built a working prototype for demonstration on campus,” Tilley says. “It was well received, so we decided to visit a plant show in Orlando to gauge interest.”
At the show, Nick Place, a Dean of Agriculture at the University of Florida (UF) and a former Maryland colleague, put Tilley in touch with UF’s Lloyd Singleton, who said Tilley had to meet T. Jay Higgins at Sun-Fire Nurseries.
“As soon as we showed T. Jay a photo of the Living Umbrella prototype, he said he would like to work with us because it fit so well with the Sun Parasol mandevilla brand,” Tilley says. “T. Jay introduced us to Suntory Flowers, and they have been very supportive and helpful during the last year.”
Since then, Tilley worked with Nick Cloyd and Tim Williamson to create Living Canopies, which is marketing the Living Umbrellas to restaurants and hotels in the Maryland/Washington, D.C., metro area. The group plans to eventually expand this marketing approach beyond the Beltway.
A restaurant owner told Tilley that people were calling immediately to get table reservations under a living umbrella.
“One of our earliest customers told us it was the coolest product they’d seen in years,” Tilley says.
Suntory Flowers also displayed the Living Umbrella at Cultivate ’17, where it was well-received.
Picking the Right Plants
Living Umbrellas are great centerpieces for any patio, but work especially well on rooftops because of their durability. Plant care is made easy by a self-watering system, which only requires a refill once a week. The Living Canopies team also chooses only hardy plants that can withstand heat and storms for the canopies.
Mandevilla ‘Sun Parasol Giant Red Emperor’ is the go-to plant for the Living Umbrellas because it produces flowers non-stop from May to October. Mandevilla ‘Sun Parasol Giant White’ also works well for spectacular floral decor. Other options include Mandevilla ‘Sun Parasol Giant Pink’ and Passiflora incarnata (Passion Flower).
Tilley says he envisions Living Umbrellas increasing consumer awareness and interest in plants.
“It’s the blend of smart technology and green thinking that gives us the ability to put beautiful, easy-to-maintain, showy flowers above people’s heads that seems to get them excited,” Tilley says. “It really makes them appreciate plants in a new way.”