Bromeliads are one of the best kept secrets in the plant world. My goal is to introduce you to the wonderful world of bromeliads and try to let you know what you are missing if they are not part of your plant collection.
They are diverse, fascinating, and relatively easy to grow. There are 54 genera and 3,168 species of identified bromeliads throughout the world. They have been hybridized extensively and many new striking plants have resulted with both bloom and foliage that offer more color than any other plant I am aware of. Because bromeliads are "different" looking than traditional plants and most people consider them exotic, therefore perceived as hard to grow, bromeliads have not caught on among plant enthusiasts nearly as much as they deserve to. Newly discovered or hybridized plants often sell to collectors for big bucks, but in a matter of years become affordable to most people as they are reproduced asexually by dividing "pups" from the developed plants. Most plant nurseries don't offer bromeliads in wide varieties so the really nice and choice plants most likely will need to be purchased from specialty growers.
Bromeliads in their native habitats (unique to the Americas with one exception in western Africa) grow in such diverse places as 13,000 ft elevations to sea level, rain forests to deserts among cacti and succulents, and even as far north as the Virginia coast and as far south as southern Argentina.. In nature, epiphytic bromeliads provide habitat for frogs, aquatic insects, and lizards as part of the tropical and subtropical ecosystem. Some are true "air plants" like Spanish or ball moss (Tillandsia) while others are terrestrial like those sweet pineapples we enjoy as a popular fruit. . Most are epiphytic deriving their nutrients from their cupped shape. The optimum temperatures for bromeliads range from 70 to 90 in daytime to 45 - 60 at night F. Most bromeliads like good air circulation and 50 - 75% humidity. There are no general guidelines for growing bromeliads as they are so diverse. You need to know about the specific genera and species and what it takes to grow it well - but with that knowledge, you will find them relatively easy to grow and enjoy.
INFLORESENCES can be cupped, bracted, branched, single spiked, or insignificant. FOLIAGE can be smooth edged (Tillandsias), spined, or succulent. BLOOM PERIODS range from less than one week (Billbergias) to greater than a month (Vrieseas). RELATIVE SIZES can range from less than one inch to greater than three feet wide and tall. These variances can occur within the same genera of bromeliads depending on the particular species.
Tips on Growing and Enjoying Bromeliads
- For epiphytic (non-terrestrial) varieties, we grow bromeliads in small pine bark as a soil base. This provides excellent aeration and circulation for the roots that form, and provides sufficient support for the plant. For terrestrials, use a loose and light organic soil mixture. For small epiphytic tillandsias, mounting them on driftwood or cork is an excellent and healthy way to display them.
- Location is everything! Since different bromeliads prefer different levels of light, they will let you know how to please them. If the foliage becomes bleached or burned, reduce the light. If the plant isn't producing the color you know it should have, increase the light. Finding the right level of light makes all the difference in bringing out the colorful qualities of these plants. Good air circulation is a common and vital need to all genera of bromeliads.
- Bromeliads should not be fertilized regularly unless you are trying to increase pup production. There are some exceptions. Tillandsias and Cryptanthus respond well to regular fertilization. Fertilization will reduce the coloration in most bromeliad hybrids that are noted for their color, e.g. Neoregelias and Billbergias. When fertilizing, use a liquid soluble 20/20/20 fertilizer at half the recommended strength. Never use urea based nitrogen fertilizer. Avoid mineral salts of any kind. Most city water supplies are fine for bromeliads. Never mount bromeliads on chemically treated lumber. Water with pH of 5.5-6.5 is preferred (avoid alkaline water).
- How to display bromeliads is always a good question. Some suggestions follow. They can be grown in large hanging baskets with three plants average per basket. We group the plants by commonality, e.g. Neoregelias in one basket, Aechmeas in another, or mixed genera that share the same light requirements. Other ways are to display them on single poles with pot loops in spiral form. Yet another way would be to incorporate them into a ground level display by digging out a hole, placing a one gallon nursery container in the hole, and inserting an 8" plastic pot into the nursery container with the plant potted in small pine bark. This gives the appearance they are terrestrial without them ever touching the soil. As long as the basic cultural requirements are met, bromeliads can be displayed in a number of other imaginative ways. They can also be attached to trees to resemble their natural habitat. However, collector or rare plants might best be grown as individual plants for greenhouse or other special display.
- After the plant flowers, it will produce "pups" or young plants then die. The young pups will take over the next generation. Pups should not be removed until visible root structures can be seen at their base or they are at least 1/3 to 1/2 the size of the mother plant. Make sure the pups are cut off with a solid base. Some bromeliads reproduce so abundantly, you'll be sharing them with friends. Dead flower stalks can be cut off if unattractive until the mother plant dies. All bromeliads require winter protection in central Texas, except the ball moss (Tillandsia rotunda), seen in our native oak trees, but most can adapt as house plants during winter months. Exceptions might be Tillandsias (air plants) which require good air circulation and high humidity.
For more information about growing bromeliads, go to www.centraltexasgardening.info/bromeliads.htm . There you will find more resources for learning about these fascinating and easy to grow plants. You can also meet fellow bromeliad enthusiasts through the Bromeliad Society of Austin which meets the second Tuesday of each month at 7:00pm in the Green Room of the Zilker Garden Center. Contact Dr. Steve Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
COLORFUL BROMELIADS BRIGHTEN UP A SHADED AUSTIN PATIO