Growing Guide: Bromeliads

The tropical jungles are the homes of some wonderful plants, such as the orchids, the forest climbers and the epiphytic cacti. The bromeliads are plants which grow cheek by jowl with the orchids, perched high up on branches or in the forks of trees. In general they are epiphytic, that is, they live on the branches, though not off them; some genera are terrestrial and live on the ground, though they are little different in their needs to the perchers.

how to grow bromeliads

The family Brotneliaceac is now thought to contain 1400 species in 46 genera, one of which is Bromelia, named after O. Bromel, a Swedish botanist of the seventeenth century. The habit of growth of the bromeliads is quite distinct from that of other plants: the greater majority form a rosette, sometimes flat, sometimes comparatively high, of leathery strap-shaped or pointed leaves in the centre of which is a tubular hollow called the ‘vase’ in which water collects.

The flower stem grows up through this water, the flower developing meanwhile, until the stem is 30cm/1 ft or more tall, the flower-head being in the shape of a cone, a spike, or a loose umbel. The overall appearance of a bromeliad is somewhat bizarre, even out o( flower, though attractive. The family is not a difficult one to manage and although some bromeliads do best in warm greenhouses, many can be grown as houseplants. The main thing to remember about bromeliads is that they grow in habitats where there is very little soil indeed, whether they are epiphytic or terrestrial. The epiphytes grow on trees, the terrestrials on the ground, in rocky and stony places in deserts and scrubland. Both kinds have tiny root systems, which serve mainly for anchorage, and will therefore grow in quite small pots. They absorb the food and water they need to a large extent through their leaves and the vase in the centre of the plant.

You can grow bromeliads singly, each in its own container, and mix them in with a group of other jungle plants, or you can experiment with a ‘bromeliad tree’; in other words, you provide them with a branch or branches, real or artificial. This can be a piece of driftwood or an apple branch, or you can make a support with pieces of cork-oak bark covering metal rods or canes on a stand. The plants are tucked into a little damp peat in the forks and hollows of the tree, and inconspicuously wired to the branches, using sphagnum moss to cover the mechanics. If you spray the branch with water before planting, from the top, you will see where the water collects naturally on its way down, and these will be the places to plant the brome¬liads. On forest trees, they will always grow where the rain fills up hollows and crevices in bark and branch.

Aechmea Urn Plant; 16°C/60°F mm; Central and South America

The aechmea commonly grown as a houseplant is the epiphytic A.jasciata, and it is very handsome with narrow silvery grey-green leaves cross-banded in white, and a bright rose-pink cone-shaped flowerhead, whose flowers, blue at first, appear in summer (August). The flowerhead lasts for several months, though each flower dies after a few days. The plant may be 60cm/2ft high and at least 30cm/1 ft wide.

Ananas Pineapple; 16°C/60°Fmin; Tropical America

A. comosus, the pineapple, is a terrestrial bromeliad which is bred to produce fruit for commercial cropping within two years. It makes an attractive foliage houseplant, but needs warm greenhouse conditions (33°C/90°F) to produce edible fruit. A. comosus ‘Variegatus’ has narrow, prickly-edged leaves in a rosette, longitudinally striped creamy white, flushed pink; the centre turns rose-pink at flowering time in summer. The whole plant is 90cm/3ft wide and the same height.

Billbergia Queen’s Tears; 16°C/60°F min; South America

This bromeliad was named after J. G. Billberg, a Swedish botanist of the late nineteenth century. B. nutans is a terrestrial bromeliad, very easy to grow and will tolerate short spells of quite low temperatures. It produces rosettes of narrow serrated leaves, dark green, with great speed. A fully grown rosette is about 45cm/l ^ft tall. The unusual flowers hang in a graceful cluster from rose-pink bracts, and are coloured navy blue, green, yellow and pink. The flowering season is May and June, though they can be made to flower in winter if high temperatures can be provided.

Cryptanthus Earth Star or Starfish Bromeliad; 16°C/60°F min; South America

The cryptanthus are mostly rather flat growing, and the central vase is almost nonexistent. They are terrestrials, though there are some growing on trees. They make good foliage houseplants, the flowers being insignificant, and because of their dwarf habit are also suitable for bottle gardens. The colouring of their leaves alters according to the intensity of light in which they are being grown, for instance C. bivittatus minor has two cream-coloured longitudinal stripes on an olive green background; however, in strong light these stripes become flushed with deep pink. C.fosterianus (much larger to 45cm/ljft wide but only 8cm/3in high) has succulent thick leaves banded horizontally with whitish-grey and copper brown in a good light, but again when the light diminishes, the leaves appear only dark and light green. C. bromelioides ‘Tricolor’ has light green leaves, broadly edged with cream, flushing to pink and is a little more upright than the other two, about 30cm/1 ft wide and high.

Guzmania 16°C/60°F min; Central and South America

The guzmanias have become popular as house-plants over the last 10 to 15 years, since hybrids have been widely introduced. The flowerhead is spearheaded in shape, though in some species it gradually opens out later into an almost waterlily-like shape. Apart from their rosette habit, guzmanias vary considerably in colouring, flower and leaf, but all are handsome. G. lingulata (height 30cm/1 ft ) has a brilliant red flowerhead, and small white flowers surrounded with orange to yellow smaller bracts. G. zahnii has olive green leaves striped with red, red bracts on the flower stem, and a yellow flowerhead with white flowers; height is about 60cm/2ft. G. berteroniana has a brilliant red flowerhead and yellow flowers; leaves are light green or wine red, and height is about 45cm/1 ft. All guzmanias flower in the winter, and nearly all are epiphytes.

Neoregelia 16°C/60°F min; Brazil

These epiphytic bro-meliads are found in the rain forests, but because of the leathery nature of the leaves they will stand a dry atmosphere. N. carolinae ‘Tricolor’ is one of the most popular, with outer green leaves centred with yellow or white, the inner ones pinkish-red; the flowerhead is bright red, with violet flo.wers, but it stays within the rosette and does not grow on a stem. Flowering is in late spring and summer; the flat rosettes can be 40cm/16in wide. N. concentrica has broader leaves 10cm/4in wide and 30cm/1 ft long; they are purple blotched. The bracts are purple and the blue flowers appear in the centre on a kind of pincushion.


Nidularium 16°C/60°F min; Brazil

These epiphytic bro-meliads are very like the neoregelias to look at, but their cultural treatment is different – they need more shade and humidity and higher temperatures to produce flowers. The name means a small nest, and refers to the flowerhead, which does not emerge from the rosette, but remains compact so that the flowers appear on a mound in the water in the vase. N. inno-centii has dark red to almost purple-black leaves, and the tightly-packed flower bracts, in autumn, are orange to copper coloured with white flowers sitting on top; paxianum and nana are particularly attractive varieties of this.

Tillandsia 16°C/60°F min; West Indies/Central America

The variation in habit of this genus is very great – it comes from tropical rain forests as well as deserts and steppes, and there are therefore both terrestrial and epiphytic forms. The Spanish Moss is an epiphytic species c f tillandsia, T. usneoides, and if you wish to grow this, a bromeliad tree is ideal, so that the long trails can hang down from the branches. T. linde-niana is the Blue Bromeliad; it has large, brilliantly blue flowers emerging from a flattened spike of deep rose-pink bracts on a stem about 30cm/1 ft long, and is altogether a very showy plant, flowering in summer. The leaves are narrow and pointed, dark green and purple.

Vriesea 16°C/60°F min; Central and South America (esp. Brazil)

The leaves of these epiphytic and terrestrial bromeliads are thick and shiny green, often cross-banded in a darker colour. V. splen-dens (Flaming Sword) has a long flattened bright red flower spike about 60cm/2ft high with yellow flowers. The dark green leaves have purple bands. V. gigantea has 45cm/1 1/2 ft

long leaves with yellowish-green tessalated markings on the upper side, dark on the under-surface. The whole plant can be 1.8m/6ft tall. V. psittacina is small with yellowish-green leaves 20cm/8in long, and a feathery flowerhead with red bracts and yellow flowers which appears in July.

displaying bromeliads in a dining room


bromeliad growing guide



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