There’s a huge variety of plants readily available today, but few are as stunning, colorful, and unusual as those of the Bromeliaceae family. Distantly related to pineapples, these wacky and wonderful specimens are growing in popularity, both as ornamental house and garden plants. Read on to learn all about how to grow them, and which varieties may be best for you.
What are Bromeliaceae?
Plants in the Bromeliaceae family are better known as “Bromeliads” in their common name. They’re an exotic and diverse collection of tropical flowering plants, which have natively adapted to growing in a wide range of sites and climates. The bromeliad family is a large one, with plants of many differing shapes, sizes, structures and flowers.
All of these are native to the American tropics and sub-tropics, with a couple also originating from Western Africa. From the outset, it seems strange that so many different-looking plants are related, but they all have one thing in common: their adaptation abilities.
Most of the plants within the family are actually epiphytes. An epiphyte is a plant that grows attached to another structure other than soil or compost. Unlike a parasitic plant, these don’t cause their growing structure any harm. In their native environments, these epiphyte bromeliads grow on tree branches and decaying tree stumps, and peek out from rock formation crevices. One particular Southeastern American variety—commonly known as Spanish Moss—even clings to telephone poles.
The most renowned epiphytic plants include mosses, orchids, and bromeliads.
What’s so Special About Them?
You may be wondering how these plants survive: this, my friend, is the most amazing thing about them. Even with an underdeveloped root system and no soil substrate, these plants really do look after themselves.
These epiphytes collect water and nutrients either from the air around them, or indirectly from their sub-structure, which they need to grow and flourish. Important elements are readily absorbed through their leaves. This means that their root system is only used as an anchor, holding them onto whichever structure they prefer.
Adaptable growth habits and tolerance levels are just a couple of the reasons I find nature truly amazing. These allow plants to survive in conditions that are far from ideal.
Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular bromeliaceae varieties available. With more than 3000 known species, there are quite a few out there, so you’ll be sure to find one just right for you!
A majority of the bromeliad varieties available today are hybrid cultivars of either the Vriesea or the Guzmania species. These are sold as a potted plant and grow easily in well-drained compost.
Plants from the Aechmea genus include two of my favorites. Let’s start with what’s commonly referred to as the “Urn Plant”, or in its botanical name,“Aechmea fasciata”.
This stunning and ever-popular bromeliad variety is a frost-tender, evergreen epiphyte that grows natively in Brazil’s rainforest. There, it can be spotted hanging high from tree branches. Its attractive, silver variegated blue-green leaves are formed from a central rosette, arching down in the shape of an urn. The flower spike is bright pink and star-shaped with pointed petals and a blue inflorescence.
It’s extremely easy to look after, and the flower spike can last for months on end. Only grow these outdoors if you live in a frost-free location.
“Aechmea Blue Rain”
A similar growing shape to that of “fasciata”, but with deep green pointed evergreen leaves that arch downwards. A slim red flower spike grows up to 40 cm in height, showing off a bright red, pink and blue inflorescence. It’s a really stunning, unique house plant that’s easy to care for.
One of my favorites from the Vriesea genus is the Flaming Sword” or“Vriesea splendens”. It originates from Trinidad and eastern Venezuela.
“Splendens” has an open structure and shiny mid-green foliage, with brown variegation bands running across the leaves. These grow in a rosette pattern from the center. The central flower spike is shiny, quite flat, and bright fire-red, which contrasts with the foliage beautifully. This is a real show-stopper, certain to get a lot of attention.
This tropical plant lives up to its name being one of the largest of the Vriesea varieties. Native to Brazil, “gigantea” has bright green, sword-shaped leaves with yellow variegation going from sheath base to each pointed tip. Growing up to a huge 1 meter in width and over 2 meters high, the central flower spike has a plumed sunshine-yellow tip. It opens at night to attract passing hummingbirds for fertilization. Best for use in larger areas, and is frost hardy in Zones 11 -15.
As with many of the other bromeliad varieties, the Guzmania genus vary in size and form. They’re named after the 18th Century Spanish-born naturalist, Anastasio Guzman. The best-known variety is the beautiful “Guzmania lingulata“, otherwise known as the “Scarlet Star”.
This epiphyte is a stemless, evergreen perennial, natively found in the Andean rain forests. It’s now cultivated for use as an indoor and garden plant. Its smooth, deep green leaves are long with an open form, and the flower spike is a bright red and orange bract that shows its full glory in summertime.
A bit of a tricky one to pronounce, the “Neoregelia Fireball” is another tropical bromeliad native to the Brazilian rainforest. It’s cultivated for its lush shiny green and red foliage. This variety is typically grown as a tender houseplant in cooler climates, but it can survive outside all year round in zones 10-12, producing a huge cluster of plants, each up to 6 inches tall.
When you get the growing conditions just right, a flower spike with tiny blue flowers appears in summertime. Unlike many of the other bromeliads listed (which are happy to be in dappled shade), “Fireball” ideally likes to be in bright but indirect sunlight for at least a few daytime hours. This allows the bromeliad to develop its most vibrant color.
Those in the Tillandsia genus are smaller than other bromeliad varieties, and are commonly grown as air plants. The “Pink Quill Plant” or “Tillandsia cyanea” may be small, but its huge pink flower quill more than makes up for what it loses in size. This impressive quill can last up to 3 – 4 months!
This pint-sized beauty’s leaves are long, thin, and bright green in hue, formed from a rosette-shaped base. These grow equally well potted into a light compost mix (which we shall talk about later), or as an air plant, and are extremely versatile and easy to care for. I think these are well worth exploring if you’re interested in growing air plants. They have great striking flowers too.
Planting your Bromeliaceae
Planting Zone for your Bromeliaceae
Many of the bromeliads listed above are frost tender, and won’t survive the winter outside. These are better planted into a pot and kept either indoors or in a conservatory over the colder months. Most frost-tender species are happy to be in a winter temperature of 55F above, and 75F in summertime.
The warmer summer temperatures will induce the flowering process. Cooler temperatures will ensure your bromeliad keeps its flowers longer. When buying your plant, ensure that you check whether they’re frost-hardy in your particular zone. Check the label to see its recommended minimum temperature.
Finding the Perfect Spot
In the wild, these bromeliads grow in semi-shaded environments in humid rainforests and on rocky outcrops. Many harder-leaved varieties will tolerate bright, indirect sunlight for part of the day. Few will survive if they’re placed in direct, hot sunlight. Place softer, fleshier-leaved bromeliads in semi-shade.
Ideal Planting Soils
The ideal planting soil is basic epiphyte compost, such as that made for orchids. You can, however, use a general-purpose compost that has had well-draining soil conditioner added to it. Fine composted bark, perlite, or coir fiber are ideal. As we’ve already discussed, most epiphytes can grow in a soil-less media and only use the root system to create an anchor.
How to Care for Your Bromeliacaea
Never over-water your bromeliaceae, because they hate it. Avoid it at all costs, as it can cause root or crown rot and eventual plant death.The ideal way to water your plant is to use a bit of natural, chlorine-free rainwater.
Does your specific bromeliad has a leaf well or rosette, such as the Aechmea and Vriesea? Keep the plant’s center well topped up with rainwater every couple of weeks during the growing season. Don’t water in wintertime—just mist the plant leaves with rainwater.
Spray plants and other varieties with water to keep them moist throughout the summer months, but never soak them.
Use diluted liquid orchid feed in your watering schedule once a month throughout the summer. Alternatively, you can use a diluted general-purpose house plant feed in summertime, made to half strength.
All plants in the bromeliacaea family like high humidity levels, especially during the summer. Mist the plant with rain water regularly to achieve this. Another way to increase humidity is to keep your potted bromeliad on a large saucer filled with clay pellets. Add enough water to the pellets to keep them moist.
Natively, these plants are happiest growing in tropical rainforests, so those conditions are what we’re trying to emulate.
Potting-On your Offsets
Whilst most plants will flower throughout the season, bromeliads don’t fall into this category. In nature, bromedliads grow and produce exotic blooms that last for several months. Once the flower has bloomed, the plant stops growing and starts to produce offsets, or “pups”. These develop on the mother plant until they’re big enough to survive. Afterwards, the mother dies off and the next bromeliad life cycle begins.
Once the flower has started to die, remove it from the plant using a good pair of scissors. Cut it right back at the base of the stem. By doing this you’re promoting the pups’ development.
Sowing from Seed
Bromeliads can be grown from seed, though these can take many years to reach flowering maturity. Sow seed on the surface of a good, well-draining sandy compost and mist before placing in a propagator. It needs a minimum heat of 80F. If you don’t have a propagator, cover the seed tray in a polythene bag and place it in a warm boiler cupboard.
Seeds germinate within a few days. Acclimatize them to house plant temperatures once several leaves have formed. Pot these seedlings into individual pots, in a suitable orchid compost.
This is a common problem when the roots have been sitting in water. Therefore, it’s best to water well, then let the plant dry out, and water well again. This cycle is much healthiers and avoids the root-rot problem.
Don’t place the plant in direct sunlight, or leaves will scorch and bleach out.
Bromeliads are more prone to scale insects and mealybugs in a greenhouse environment than when outdoors. This is because they’re in a wet environment, and their natural predators are absent. Should you find an infestation, wash the leaves with a suitable diluted detergent and spray with an insecticide. Your plant will be healthier if you keep it clean, and removing old leaves and debris.
One Last Tip:
Flowering can take several years. If you’ve been trying to induce it and haven’t had any luck, this is a worthy tip that can kickstart the flowering process.
Place your plant in a large propagator, or a large polythene bag, along with a couple of ripening apples. Apples give off an ethylene gas when ripening, so use that to stimulate flowering production.
Now you have everything you need to know to effectively grow a healthy and happy plant. Enjoy!