Name: bromeliad (family Bromeliaceae, multiple genera, some of the most well known being Aechmea sp., Guzmania sp., Neoregelia sp., Vriesea sp. and Alcantarea sp.).
Plant type: evergreen perennials, epiphytic or terrestrial.
Height: varies with genus, from less than 10cm to more than 2m.
Foliage: varies in shape. Usually quite rigid, often colourful, sometimes with spines on edges.
Climate: tropical, sub-tropical, warm temperate sheltered areas or indoors in cool temperate.
Position: species for full shade through to full sun.
Flowering and fruiting: varies with species and climate.
Feeding: little or none required.
Watering: little required in most situations.
If you were to try and put your finger on the “it” plants of recent years, the bromeliad would quite likely come in at the top of the list. Not too long ago it was very much a fringe, collector's plant. Now? It's the darling of designers and home gardeners alike. And for good reason, too. Bromeliads are an extraordinarily diverse group of plants, and there's a variety that can grow in just about any situation. They have truly stunning, colourful foliage, flowers or both, and most are very, very easy to care for.
There are many genera and literally thousands of species, so we'll take a quick look at a few to give you a feel for this diverse group of plants.
The most popular of this genus are the cultivars of Alcantarea imperialis. These are collectively known as giant alcantarea, and the varieties have names such as “Rubra”, “Purpurea” and “Silver Plum” due to their beautiful foliage.
The leaves are often silver-green above while the underside will be varying shades of plum or red. The plant can reach just over 1m wide, and the flower spike, if seen, can be as tall as 2.5m. It is a very sun and cold (but not frost) tolerant species.
There are a couple of Aechmea that will probably be familiar, but you may be surprised to find that they are so closely related, as their appearance is, at least on first glance, very different.
Aechmea fasciata cvs: often known as the “silver vase” or “urn plant”, this species will grow as a soil-less epiphyte, as a potted specimen or an under-storey plant in the garden. It prefers filtered light or semi-shade. It has very distinctive, and sharply serrated, broad leaves that usually have a powdery silver appearance.
The flower head is nothing short of spectacular – it's bold, bizarre, hot-pink and spiky. The flower spike will last on the plant for months, retaining its colour well all the while.
Aechmea gamosepala cvs: With a multitude of varieties, these Aechmea are most commonly known as “matchstick bromeliads”, for their flower spikes, which resemble masses of matches on a long stem. Leaves are glossy, around 30cm long and tend to be held more upright in shade. Most attractive are the variegated forms, but the regular varieties can be quite stunning too. They will grow in shade through to filtered or dappled light. If grown in shade, their foliage will be a deep, lush green, if grown in a brighter spot, it can become almost golden in colour. They are said to have good cold tolerance to around –3°C.
If you've ever been given a bromeliad as a flowering potted plant, chances are it was a Guzmania. This group has been very heavily hybridised – to the extent that they are often just known by their family name, followed by the variety or cultivar name; a species name isn't used. For example, Guzmania “Amaranth” is one of the older and most popular forms. They have very beautiful, tropical-look foliage that's around 30cm long with no spikes or spines, and absolutely stunning flower spikes up to around 50cm tall. The flowers are in fact tiny, and on the end of the spike; the colourful parts are leaf-like bracts that cloak the stem in reds, dark purples, oranges and yellows.
The flower spike can last for months, making it an excellent indoor flowering plant. In the wild, Guzmania would grow in heavy leaf litter on the forest floor, so they like open and free-draining potting mix or planting conditions.
Some will tolerate cold conditions if protected from frost, but they don't like cold, wet winters.
The amount of sunlight required varies with species, and also within the species group, so check the label. There are bromeliads for all situations, from full shade through to full sun.
As the majority of bromeliad species are from warm regions, most varieties require a warm and sheltered aspect. On saying that, however, there are some species of Alcantarea that will tolerate reasonable frost in open positions.
Many of the bromeliads we grow are either epiphytes or are lithophytes – that is, they grow in technically soil-less conditions on trees or in rock crevices, or have very little root structure beyond what is required for anchoring. The best growing medium for any bromeliad will be very open and free-draining. Hardy as they are, being too wet will kill them almost overnight. In pots or planting pockets in the garden, use an orchid potting mix blend. If planting in the garden, a bromeliad can be planted in a thick layer of well-composted mulch, but must be elevated above normal garden soil.
The growing mix, in gardens or pots, only ever needs to be moist, not wet. Bromeliad can handle its “soil” being quite dry, so don't panic if it dries out. An occasional sprinkle to keep water in its central “cups” will keep it happy. If water sits in the cup for an extended time, it's worth pouring or gently flushing it out to keep it clean.
Bromeliad is generally pest free. The only issue tends to be rot if it gets too wet.
Many bromeliad species produce pup-plants from around the base as they grow. These can be carefully removed and re-potted once they have developed a few rounds of leaves.
Some bromeliads die after flowering, but will produce new plants before they do so. Remove these from the dead plant and place in pots of coarse orchid mix until they have established enough for planting out.
Indoor plants: bromeliads can make an awesome addition to the indoors, too.
Palm: a palm can be the perfect complement to a bromeliad in a tropical-look landscape.
Aquatic plants: bromeliads look spectacular planted around ponds; here's a guide for growing in your pond.
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