Aechmea ‘Blue Rain’ has brilliant, long-lasting flowers. (Image by Jessie Keith)
If you love tropical plants with bold, colorful foliage and vibrant flowers, you will adore bromeliads. If you are fascinated by air plants that grow and flourish with no soil and almost no care, you will also be drawn to bromeliads. In fact, the group is so large and diverse that it offers plants to suit just about every taste and situation.
Bromeliad leaves form a central cup that holds water.
Pineapple (Ananas comosus) is the best-known plant in the bromeliad family. Other popular members of this clan include vase plants (Guzmania spp.), urn plants, (Aechmea spp.), neoregelia (Neoregelia spp.), and air plants (Tillandsia spp.). What do they have in common? These members of the bromeliad family are native to tropical rain forests, and many are epiphytes (plants that live in trees and absorb water and nutrients through their leaves). The best-known of these can be successfully grown indoors in containers or terrariums.
The single-most defining feature of bromeliads is their prominent rosette of leaves. These leaves can be thick, like those of neoregelia, or slender and airy, like air plant foliage. In many species the overlapping leaves of the rosette form a cup or “tank” that collects and holds water to keep plants hydrated.
Bromeliad flowers often have clusters of showy bracts that surround the small true flowers. The blooms appear on stalks that rise from the central rosette. Most bromeliads mature slowly and flower only once, though the flowers may be long-lasting. Afterwards the plants eventually die, but not before producing “pups” or offshoots that can be detached from the mother plant and replanted.
Bromeliads For Pots
The following bromeliads are container grown, and pack a punch when grown in warm indoor and outdoor conditions:
Indoor pineapples produce small fruits.
Pineapple plants are shallow-rooted terrestrial bromeliads. If you live in USDA plant hardiness zones 10-11, grow them in your garden. Elsewhere, they make excellent indoor specimens. Though house-bound pineapple fruits are likely to be smaller and less tasty than those grown commercially, the arching foliage and reddish flowers make the plants worth growing. At maturity (which can take two or three years), pineapples may reach 3-feet tall and wide, with long, stiff, gray-green foliage. Edible fruits appears after the flowers fade, and can be harvested when the skin is uniformly golden yellow. If you are looking for a showier plant, try the variegated ornamental pineapple (Ananas comosus ‘Variegatus’), which has brilliant pink blooms and striped green, pink, and ivory leaves.
Pineapples produce “pups”, like other bromeliads, which can be cut and rooted. Gardeners can also grow their own pineapples by successfully by rooting the crown from a ripe fruit purchased at the grocery store. This is a fun project for the kids. Start by cutting off the leafy top of a fresh pineapple, leaving 1/2 inch of flesh below the leaves. Remove any lower leaves at the base of the crown. Nestle it in a pot of Fafard Professional Potting Mix, making sure the base is covered. Place it near a sunny window, and keep it lightly moist. In a few weeks, roots will develop and your plant will start growing!
The “cup” of mature neoregelia product small, three-petaled flowers.
Beautiful neoregelia are available in many hybrid forms. Most feature long, upwardly curved leaves that may sport stripes, bands, spots, freckles or blotches in an array of colors from near-black to shades of yellow, red, pink, purple, maroon, and white. Sizes vary, but a medium-sized variety may be about 1/2-feet tall and up to 2-feet across.
In the wild, most neoregelia species are epiphytic, but in home cultivation the plants are perfectly happy potted in light potting mix, such as Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil mixed with small orchid bark. Make sure the pot is shallow and wide. Keep the soil lightly moist, and make sure that their inner cup always contains a little water. Distilled water is best. Three-petaled flowers of violet will bloom from the cup when plants are mature.
Scarlet star has smooth green leaves and showy red blooms.
The popular scarlet star (Guzmania lingulata) hails from Central and South America, but is widely grown. Like neoregelia, it is an adaptable epiphyte suited to container culture. It pays to consider guzmania’s space requirements, because mature plants rise between 1 to 2 feet, with an equal spread. Individual leaves can be 1 1/2-feet long and may feature darker green bands, depending on variety.
Though the leaves are impressive, it’s the showy flower spikes of large red or pink bracts that have made the plant a horticultural celebrity. A closer look reveals that the long-lasting bracts harbor a central array of small white flowers. Since scarlet star thrives in relatively low light, indoor gardeners can save the brightest spots for other plants.
Silver Vase Plant
Silver vase plant has bold foliage and brilliant blooms. (Image by Paul & Aline Burland)
Depending on species or variety, aechmea’s stiff, broad leaves may be erect, rising in a vase-shape, or arching. Either way, the foliage can be blushed, banded or variegated in contrasting colors. Species with erect foliage include Aechmea fasciata or silver vase plant. There are also lots of stellar hybrids, including the popular Aechmea ‘Blue Rain’, which produces spectacular purple and red blooms.
As with other bromeliads, the small true flowers are completely upstaged by the bright-colored bracts that rise above the basal rosette. Those numerous bracts may be yellow, pink, pink-purple, red or bi-colored.
Growing Potted Bromeliads
Ootted neoregelia shine in a winter conservatory.
Growing bromeliads indoors is simple. Container-grown plants need a free-draining mixture of equal parts quality potting soil, like Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Soil, and commercial orchid bark (small chunks). Most bromeliads like bright, filtered light, so place them close to a sunny window but away from direct rays. Water both the soil lightly and by filling the central rosette with water. Distilled water or collected rainwater is best for irrigating bromeliads because tap water can cause mineral build up on the leaves. Provide extra humidity by misting periodically or setting the containers on trays of pebbles and water. Feed plants twice monthly with a water-soluble fertilizer for bromeliads (17-8-22).
Once flowers have bloomed and the stalks are no longer attractive, cut them off. When pups appear, wait until they are about half the size of the mother plant before detaching and repotting them.
Air plants that come in all shapes and sizes.
Tillandsias are sometimes sold under the name, “air plants”, an acknowledgement of their epiphytic nature. There are approximately 650 Tillandsia species and many more varieties available for air-plant lovers. These come in all shapes and sizes. Most are grown for their impressive foliage, but many like the pink quill plant (Tillandsia cyanea), also sport spectacular blooms.
The most widely sold air plant species is the sky plant (Tillandsia ionantha), a breeders’ favorite available in numerous varieties. This relative of Spanish moss needs no soil and can be mounted on just about any kind of support. Sometimes several plants are bundled together into a ball and hung like an ornament.
At only a few inches in diameter, with delicate foliage, the sky plant works well as a decorative accent in small spaces. Young specimens bear slender green leaves, but as the plants mature, their color begins changing. By bloom time, the foliage will have changed to a vivid red/pink. The flower shoots have blue-purple bracts surrounding white or yellow blossoms.
Growing Air Plants
Pink quill plant is one of the best-flowering air plants.
Most tillandsias have aerial roots or root structures designed to cling to trees. These roots absorb some moisture and nutrients, but they will not grow into soil and will rot if planted in potting mix. They are best mounted onto a wooden structure and placed in a humid spot with filtered sunlight. Planting them in pebble-lined terrariums will help increase humidity if you add a 1/2-inch layer of water to the pebbles weekly.
Since most of the moisture is absorbed through the leaves, a thorough misting with distilled water two or three times a week is recommended. Add water-soluble bromeliad fertilizer to the mist once or twice a month for best growth. Once monthly give them a more intensive watering. Soak the whole air plant in room-temperature distilled or rain water for 20-30 minutes. Gently shake them off after soaking.
Like other bromeliads, air plants will produce “pups” after the blooms fade. Simply cut these away from the dying parent plant and re-mount.
A good online source for bromeliads is Sunshine Bromeliads. These wonderful tropical plants can be raised indoors and successfully summered outdoors. If you decide to give your tropical plants a summer vacation, position them in light shade to prevent leaf burn and be sure to return them to the house when night temperatures begin to hover in the fifties.