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Beautiful, bold bromeliads

By MARY COLLISTER, Times Correspondent
Published September 2, 2007


If you had the opportunity to attend the recent Bromeliad Bonanza at the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens, you may have a few new additions at your home. If you've not grown bromeliads before, don't panic. They are quite easy to nurture.

Bromeliads are members of the plant family Bromeliaceae, containing more than 3,000 described species. The most well known bromeliad is one that you may find in your fruit salad - the pineapple. But this family includes others that look nothing like that fruit such as Spanish moss (which incidentally is neither Spanish nor a moss).

Most bromeliads are inexpensive (although some of the more unusual hybrids may be costly), easy to grow, and require very little care. The grower's reward is a plant with brilliantly colorful, long lasting blooms and ornamental foliage. Sizes range from cute little miniatures to garden giants. In our area they can be grown as house plants, but prefer an outdoor climate.

The more common bromeliads are terrestrial species, which means they are found growing in the ground, which is typical of most of our garden plants. There are two other species that are a bit more unusual and I hope you were able to see them at the Bromeliad Bonanza and perhaps even take a few home.

Saxicolous species grow on rocks. They will grow on all types of rocks, from small to large, from horizontal to vertical surfaces. These are probably the least common grown.

The third species is epiphytic. These are found growing on other plants, usually trees, shrubs or cactus, but sometimes they can be found on telephone poles or even on the telephone lines themselves.

This capability to take their nutrition and moisture from the atmosphere has earned these bromeliads the name air plants." The ever prevalent Spanish moss is an example and one of the smallest bromeliads. The roots of epiphytic species harden off after growing. The roots attach the plant to the host, but do not take sustenance from their host, merely using it for support so they don't usually harm the host. If the bromeliads become too numerous, it may block the sunlight to the host plant foliage and cut down on the necessary photosynthesis. In the long run this may cause the host to decline.

All three types of bromeliads are composed of a spiral arrangement of leaves sometimes called a rosette.

This spiral arrangement causes the plant to grow in a flattened configuration with its leaves lined up in a single plane. In many, if not most, of the bromeliads, the bases of the leaves overlap to form a water reservoir. Those with this central cup are often called tank bromeliads. They rely less heavily on their roots for nourishment than others. This tank is used to hold water and nutrients used by the plant.

Lighting for bromeliads can range from bright, but indirect, to fairly shaded. They don't like the hot sun shining directly on them and seem to be happy tucked under a shade tree.

Bromeliads like to be kept evenly moist but seem to do fine in my yard when they dry out. These plants are under a large maple and receive no direct sunlight. I give them no supplemental water, so they are at the mercy of the rains and its schedule.

I don't ever make a special point of fertilizing my bromeliads and they seem to fare just fine. They do get a water soluble fertilizer when I spray all plants, usually just once a year. The experts recommend bromeliad fertilizer, a 17-8-22 blend, but a Miracle-Gro type of fertilizer is said to be acceptable. I have never used any special blend and have a healthy plant that continues to thrive.

Bromeliads make wonderful gifts as they look great and fare well inside or outside even for the novice gardener. This ease of care and the colorful leaves make them a welcome addition to any inside or outside garden.