Bromeliads, more than any other, are today’s in-plants. They are hardy, easy to grow, and survive the neglect imposed upon them by

English: Epiphytes (bromeliads, climbing palms...

Bromeliads growing in the wild

the accelerated pace of modern living. Greatly adaptable, they grow under artificial, air-conditioned atmospheres and tolerate abnormal light and moisture situations.

As living accessories, bromeliads provide a truly exotic look for home and office. The broad spectrum in cultivation today permits a wide choice that appeals to every desire. Gracefully curving arches, straight tubular vases, and wavy star-like arms portray only a few of the unusual foliage shapes. Singly, large or small specimens brighten a drab corner, accent a coffee table, soften a window shelf, or highlight an austere office. In clusters with other plants they truly mimic a jungle landscape. Forms with spreading foliage or pendulous flower stalks drape artfully in baskets or macrame’ hangers. Small forms cluster easily in a terrarium. Others perch on a driftwood branch—forming a miniature air garden reminiscent of the plants’ native habitat.

Today over 2,000 species and hundreds of varieties are known and many are available as houseplants. And, almost daily, new varieties are hybridized.

What’s a Bromeliad?

Bromeliads as a group are not well known because they are relatively recent introductions into plant culture. They are now available in nearly every plant store.

Bromeliads, or bromels as they are nicknamed, are members of a large family of plants, the best known being the pineapple with its edible fruit, and Spanish moss, that eerie, draped companion of trees in our Southern states. Native to tropical America, they grow wild from the southern United States to deep South America. Companions with orchids and other exotic plants, brome­liads perch on trees (epiphytes), cling to rocks (saxicolous), and grow on the forest or desert floor (terrestrials). From midgets less than 1 inch (2.5cm) wide to giants over 35 feet (10.5m) tall, they occupy humid sea level jungles, per­sistently wet cloud forests on mountains up to 14,000 feet (4200m) high, low coastal slopes, and dry desert expanses. Epiphytic species, because they grow on trees and love moving air, are commonly called airplants. They are not para­sitic but simply use trees as anchors on which to cling.

All bromeliads have scales on their leaves which are remarkable moisture absorbing organs that pull water right out of the air. These scales may provide striking banding patterns, especially on the lower leaf surface, or they may appear to be absent and require close examination.

Nature spent a great deal of effort designing bromeliads to be pleasing to the eye. Those with bold spreading rosettes are real vases and urns that rival their ceramic counterparts. These are the tank-type forms that hold water in a well designed cup in their center. The small star-like rosettes of the earth stars are terrestrial reflections of their celestial counterparts. Bromeliads are plants of double appeal, because many have brilliant blooms as well as ornamental foli­age. At time of bloom the plant bears a flower stalk (inflorescence) which may display colors that are unique, vivid, and bold.

Where will a Bromeliad grow?

One of the best things about flowers in Florid...

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Any plant, including bromeliads, grows best if allowed to develop under conditions which nearly duplicate its native habitat. The various rooms in your home offer a variety of climates, some with sun and warmth, some shaded and cool, some moist, and still others where day and night temperatures vary. Take advantage of these differences when selecting your bromeliad. You can either choose your plant and then place it in the most appropriate environment or pick the location and then choose your plant to fit that spot. Fortunately, there are many bromeliads that grow well under a wide range of conditions and thus will adapt to various locations in the home. Bromeliads respond mostly to light and moisture.

Even bromeliads, which are highly adaptable, need to adjust when moved to new surroundings. Cultivated bromeliads are grown in greenhouses or out­doors in warm climates and the difficult-to-grow, wild ones are shipped almost directly from the jungle. Your plant usually must acclimatize to a drier atmo­sphere, an even temperature, less air movement, and reduced light. It responds by losing some water and developing one or two dried outer leaves or leaf tips. This is normal during adjustment.

For the first few weeks treat the plant with extra care. Mist it frequently to raise the humidity and provide moisture for the water absorbing scales on its leaves. Keep the plant out of full sunlight even if it is a full-sun plant. If possible, keep it cooler (55-60°F, 13-16°C) to prevent rapid responses to its environment. When adjusted, move the plant to the conditions of light, moisture, and tempera­ture that are best for its health and growth.

Light Requirements

Light is the most important element for growing beautiful bromeliads. Your plant responds with its best form, character, and color when provided the maxi­mum light it will tolerate—short of bleaching or burning the foliage. Sun-loving bromeliads can survive in shade and shade-loving bromeliads can live in fairly intense sunlight, but neither will give their best when this occurs. For example, moderate-to-bright light plants when shaded will grow long, lanky leaves that are often dark green—two responses that are designed to capture more light.

In the wild, bromeliads grow under diverse light intensities. Some cling to barren trees and rocks on sun-lit deserts and hillside slopes. Many dwell in tree-top homes where filtered light bathes their leaves. And others nestle in the near-shade of the rainforest or lowland jungle floor. Because of this, each species has a form and color that suits it to its environment. We can often tell a plant’s needed light and other requirements by reading its “leaf-meter”. For instance, bromeliads with soft, thin, green leaves which form a rosette that can hold water in a natural cup usually are jungle forms that require diffused light or semi-shade. Those with spiny, thick, or succulent leaves covered with whitish, grayish, or fuzzy scales in most cases prefer bright light to full sunlight. Also, as a general rule the stiffer and stouter the foliage the more light needed to bring out the true character of the plant. Such plants also like less water and lots of air movement around them. On the other hand, the more prominent the leaf banding or striping or the more colorful the foliage the less light needed. However, on some spotted kinds such as Billbergia ‘Fantasia’ the spots will disappear when light intensity is low, as their beauty can only be enhanced by exposing them to as much light as they can tolerate.

The amount of light received by your plant depends on many factors. The sun is brighter in southern climes than in northern ones by half again as much. Oregon is cloudier than sunny, southern California and humid Florida is far less bright than dry Arizona. Also consider that light is not the same throughout the year. A spot just right for your plant in winter or early spring may be too bright and hot by midsummer. In their native home most bromels get 12 hours or more of daylight, but as houseplants in northern climes they may get less than nine hours in winter. All of these factors will have to be considered in growing your bromeliad.

How can I determine proper light intensity for Bromeliads?

A bromeliad

Thick stemmed Bromeliad

In your home a southern exposure gives the most light, but trees, curtains, nearby buildings, and dark colored walls reduce it greatly. Thus, the direction can not be used alone to tell the best location for your plant. A better way is to use the shadow of your hand as a means of determining light intensity. The best way to test this is on a sunny day at noon. Simply hold your hand about one foot above the surface of the place you’ve selected for your plant.

  • BRIGHT LIGHT will produce a well defined shadow showing a nearly clear outline of your hand.
  • MODERATE LIGHT will show a strong shadow with indistinct or fuzzy outlines of your hand.
  • LOW LIGHT will produce an indistinct shadow barely revealing an outline. Mote also, that bright light may be from direct sunlight or indirect sun­light. Full-sun plants enjoy direct sunlight for most of the day.

Other ones may only if indirect or intermittent. Indirect light means the light is diffused or re­flected onto the plant and intermittent means the plant receives several periods of direct and indirect light during the day.

Growing Bromeliads under Artificial lights

Bromeliads can be grown under artificial lights if given at least 200 to 300 foot-candles of light. Fluorescent tubes are best because they do not give off as much heat as incandescent lamps. Use an equal combination of “Daylite” tubes and “Soft White” tubes to give your plants a balanced light spectrum. Plant grow-lites are equally effective and give off a violet glow which enhances the character of most bromeliads. Lights should be placed directly above and no more than a foot away from the tops of the plants. This will keep them growing straight, provide sufficient light, and give you enough room to water your plants.

The majority of bromeliads live near the equator so they like 12 to 14 hours of light each day, and adapt readily to 16 or 18 hours. Turn the lights on in the morning when you rise and off again when you retire and your plants will grow well for you.

Temperature Requirements

Bromeliads grow from sea level to high in the Andes mountains. Thus they sometimes endure temperatures from over 100°F (38°C) to near freezing. Still, most are tropical plants that prefer more moderate temperatures above 45°F, (7°C). All enjoy fluctuating daily temperatures and thrive ideally when nights are in the 50’s (10°C) and days in the 70’s or 80’s (21-27°C). The home environment is quite suitable for most bromeliads even if temperatures do not fluctuate this widely.

In areas where bromeliads are kept outdoors most or all of the year they may need protection against the cold if temperatures drop to near freezing. Stiff leaved plants, such as aechmeas and tillandsias, and succulents such as hectias and dykias, tolerate cold the best. However, even some of the thin leaved kinds stand freezing temperatures for short periods. Cover endangered plants with cloth, cardboard, or other suitable material that maintains ground-heat in contact with the plant. Drain water-holding bromeliads to resist freezing injury. Remove covers and add water again when temperatures rise.

Air Movement

All bromeliads dislike a stuffy atmosphere and most like plenty of air circu­lation. Tillandsias and xerophytic (dry) species that grow in the open or in tree-tops prefer the most air movement. Fresh air is like a tonic to them as it provides carbon dioxide, nitrogen, moisture, and other essential elements necessary for their survival. It also discourages diseases and insect attacks. The tank-type bromeliads that hold much water such as the canistrums and nidulariums, and some of the earthstars, are least demanding as they grow closer to the ground and often in dense jungles.

Grown outdoors, plants have little problem as the air always moves freely. Indoors, however, they do best if you place them where the air is buoyant such as near a doorway or where traffic is heaviest. When possible situate them near an open window but don’t allow the plant to be in a cold draft. A small electric fan will keep the air buoyant and do wonders for your bromeliad.


The amount of moisture in the air is important to the well-being and growth of bromeliads. Even desert species growing in full sun encounter a humid atmosphere at night. Most bromeliads grow best when the relative humidity is higher than 30% for at least part of each day. Moisture may drop below this in winter in homes in temperate climates. One easy way to increase moisture around your plant is to occasionally mist it with water. Another practical way is to set it in a pan with an inch of pebbles on the bottom and fill the pan with warm water to just below the bottom of the pot. The water evaporating from the pan will increase the moisture around the bromeliad and it will absorb the water through its leaf scales. Plants mounted on tree fern or wood can be humidified the same way by suspending them over a water-filled pan.

When possible, place your plants in a kitchen or bathroom as humidity is generally higher there. You can cluster your bromeliads together or with other plants to raise moisture around them. A humidifier, of course, is ideal for raising the moisture content of a room.

How often do Bromeliads need water?

Ananas comosus (Bromeliaceae)

Image by Tim Waters via Flickr

Basically there are three types of bromeliads requiring three different watering regimes. The soft glossy leaf types which live in dense forests are accustomed to moist air and frequent rain, so they need water about three or four times per week. Daily watering will not harm them. Also give them a shower every three or four weeks in your sink or tub to clean and revitalize them. They enjoy a bath in the rain also. Moisture-loving bromeliads include most neoregelias, nidular-iums, vrieseas, guzmanias, and others with soft glossy leaves.

The dry, treetop airplants such as the tillandsias and some aechmeas and billbergias, which have numerous scales on their leaves, absorb much of their water directly from the air. Thus, these demand less frequent watering than the dense forest types. Generally two or at most three waterings in a week provide sufficient moisture for most of these.

The highly xerophytic (dry) species like the dyckias have thick, succulent leaves so they need water about once a week or perhaps less often, since they prefer to dry out between waterings. In general, these are treated like succulents and cacti.

You may need to water your bromeliads more frequently in summer, espe­cially if it is hot and dry, and less often in winter or when plants appear to be growing slowly.

What is the best water to use?

Rainwater is ideal for bromeliads but you may have difficulty collecting and storing it. Use distilled water if you can afford it. You can use tap water, but try to alternate it occasionally with rain or distilled water, especially if your bromel­iad is one of the tank variety. Salts will tend to accumulate in the cup and eventu­ally injure the plant. The chlorine in tap water is not especially injurious to bromeliads. Never, however, use softened water because the sodium used to replace calcium in the water will eventually kill the plant. Fluorides, too, in tap water may cause some spotting and leaf burn but usually only after a long period of accumulation. To avoid injuries from salts and fluorides, occasionally empty the cup and refill with rain or distilled water. Also, occasionally flush the potting medium with several changes of rain water to leach out accumulated salts. Fluorides also become relatively inactive under slightly acid conditions. Fortunately bromeliads prefer water that is slightly acid anyway. Some bromel-iads will tolerate alkaline water for a time but prolonged contact is detrimental. Acidify water if necessary by adding a small amount of lemon juice, vinegar, or boric acid.

How do I water?

If your bromeliad is growing in a potting medium, soak the potting medium each time you water and let it drain through the pot. Unless your bromeliad is a highly xerophytic species you can keep the medium lightly moist or let it dry out for short periods. Never let it become soggy because this will encourage rotting of the roots or crown. Do not water lightly either since this discourages optimum root growth.

Tank-type bromeliads, those with a cup in the center formed by the rosette of leaves, require water in them at all times. Fill the cup at each watering and let it over-flow filling all the leaf bases.

Specimens mounted on wood or tree fern slabs usually should be watered by misting. Do not soak or drench them as they will not dry out rapidly and rot may set in. The leaf scales are efficient at absorbing water from a good misting.

Fertilize for Vitality and Beauty

Fertilizer will make your bromeliad more robust and healthy looking. The plant will have better coloration and its spikes and flowers will reach their full potential. Bromeliads respond rapidly to feeding and results are glorifying. In nature, epiphytic bromeliads depend on nutrients from the air and those with cups get their nutrients from guano, leaves, and dust dissolved in its watery liquor. Terrestrials and pot-adapted epiphytes absorb nutrients from the soil through their roots as well.

How do I fertilize Bromeliads?

Water soluble plant foods are easiest to use and almost any prepared mixture including orchid fertilizer is suitable. For especially healthy plants alternate different kinds after every few applications to modify the N-P-K (nitro­gen-phosphorus-potassium) ratios. Mix the plant food in water and apply at the time you’d normally water your plant. Use one-half the strength recommended on the container and apply at about monthly intervals. Fill cups of tank-type bromeliads and drench soil or potting media of potted specimens. Mist the leaves of all the other plants with the plant food solution.

When preparing plant food in water add a dash of vinegar or a small amount of sphagnum moss to the water before you add the fertilizer. This will acidify the water which increases the solubility of the plant food and provides the slight acidity preferred by the plant. Gradual-release fertilizer may be added to the potting medium when transplanting, if desired.

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