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Come out and see Sun Gro and Fafard at the Tropical Plant International Expo (TPIE) held from January 17 – 19, 2018 at the Broward County Convention Center! It is THE trade event showcasing the latest trends in South Florida tropical plants. The massive trade show features nearly 5 acres of vibrant plants in addition to green industry vendors. Come and see all the new things Sun Gro will offer in 2018.
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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.
Dwarf calamondins are super tropical fruits for indoor growing.
Growing tropical fruits in Toledo (or Toronto or Trenton) may seem like the stuff of fantasy. It’s perfectly doable, though, thanks to the numerous dwarf tropical fruit trees that take well to containers and flower and fruit at a young age. A warm sunny outdoor location in summer, an equally sunny indoor niche in winter, a suitable watering and fertilizing regime, and a well-drained growing medium (such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix) will keep them happy and fruitful.
The genus Citrus is particularly well endowed with container-friendly plants. Kumquats (Citrus japonica, aka Fortunella) are a stellar example. Visit your local supermarket during the winter holiday season, and you’re likely to find the orange-yellow, tart, bite-sized fruits of the popular kumquat variety ‘Nagami’. A number of other, lesser-known kumquats are well worth eating (and growing). The cultivar ‘Meiwa’ bears round, orange, 1¼ -inch fruits that are comparatively sweet and seed-free. Large, thin-skinned, orange kumquats deck the branches of another relatively sweet-flavored variety, ‘Fukushu’. In contrast, ‘Hong Kong’ produces numerous showy, scarlet, ¾-inch fruits with large seeds and scanty pulp. They’re great for ornament but not as good for eating.
Ripening in early winter, kumquat fruits typically remain on the branches until spring, providing decoration and snack possibilities well beyond the holidays. Small, starry white flowers perfume the air in late spring and early summer, and the lustrous, verdant, evergreen leaves are handsome year-round.
Calamondin (Citrus mitis) is what happened when a kumquat hybridized with a mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata). The result is a compact, repeat-blooming evergreen shrub that carries fragrant white flowers and small, chubby, tasty “oranges” throughout much of the year, with production peaking in winter. The fruits can be eaten fresh and make excellent preserves. Splashy cream-yellow markings adorn the leaves and immature fruit of the calamondin ‘Variegata’.
Meyer lemon (Citruslimon ‘Meyer’) is yet another citrus with admirable qualities. A small evergreen tree that can be easily maintained at 3 feet tall in a container, it produces several flushes of flowers and fruits throughout the year, peaking in winter and early spring. The 2- to 3-inch lemons have thin, golden-yellow rinds and relatively sweet, juicy, flavorful flesh that goes well in salads, stews, and preserves. They also make a zingy snack.
Among the other edible citrus for containers are Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia), myrtle leaf orange (Citrus myrtifolia), and Rangpur lime (Citrus limon ‘Otaheite’). The takeaway (particularly if you have lots of container-gardening space) is that you don’t have to live in the tropics to enjoy a year-long harvest of lemons, oranges, and kumquats.
Citrus prefer ample sunlight, medium to high humidity, 40° to 60° F minimum temperatures, and moderate watering and feeding from spring to fall (with lower amounts in winter).
Prune off unwanted growth immediately after the fruiting season, in early spring. Common indoor pests can be a problem. Watch for mealybugs, scale, whiteflies, and other common Citrus pests, particularly on stressed or over-fertilized plants. Cleaning plants up with a insecticidal soap before bringing them back indoors in fall can help ward off these pests.
Pineapple guava flowers (Image by C T Johansson)
Guavas are another group of tropical New World evergreens renowned for their aromatic flowers and fruits, and several can be grown beautifully indoors.
Native to uplands of central South America, pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana, aka Acca sellowiana) works wonderfully as a container plant. Lustrous, leathery, silver-backed leaves clothe the upright, gray-barked stems of this handsome small tree. Sweet-scented, pale purple flowers with starbursts of maroon stamens open in late spring and early summer, followed by waxy, blue-green, egg-shaped fruits that cast an intoxicating fragrance as they mature in fall. Their pineapple-flavored fruits (with undertones of mint and apple) are at their best for only a few days after they fully ripen.
Pineapple guava plants require cool winter conditions (40° to 50° Fminimum) and at least one cross-pollenizing companion plant for maximum flowering and fruiting. As with all the guavas described here, they appreciate a monthly application of organic fertilizer in spring and summer. Plants can be kept at 4 to 6 feet by removing overgrown stems in late summer.
Common guava (Psidium guajava) also takes readily to container culture, fruiting reliably and repeatedly in warm, humid, sunny conditions (60 degrees Fahrenheit minimum). For home growing, choose the true dwarf guava (Psidium guajava var. nana). The fragrant white flowers with bottlebrush stamens recur throughout the year, giving way to pale green-skinned fruits that have delicious, musky-scented, deep pink flesh when ripe.
A vicious weed in many tropical regions outside its native Brazil, strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) is an exemplary container plant for colder latitudes, provided it’s spared from temperatures below 50° F. Small, spherical, red-skinned fruits with tangy, pale flesh appear in late summer and continue through winter in favorable locations. The fruits are preceded by fuzzy, white, sweet-scented flowers. The variety lucidum (commonly known as lemon guava) has yellow-skinned, relatively tart flavored fruits. A small tree in the wild, Psidium cattleianum grows much more compactly in containers, typically topping out at 4 or 5 feet.
There’s a lot to explore in container-friendly tropical fruit trees beyond citrus and guavas, including loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), dwarf mango ( Mangifera ‘Pickering’), star fruit (Averrhoa carambola), and the ‘Tainung’ papaya (Carica papaya ‘Tainung’ ), which will begin fruiting on 2-foot plants. Many dwarf common-fig cultivars (Ficus carica), such as the super tiny ‘Petite Negra’ that starts fruiting on 12-inch plants, also grow well in a warm winter sun room or conservatory. There are even mangoes, such as the golden mango ‘Nam Doc Mai’, that will grow well in large indoor pots.
Another favorite that’s easy to grow is the dwarf banana ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendesh’ (Musa ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendesh’). Once they reach 3-feet high, they will produce small trusses of delicious bananas year round, if given high light, regular water, and warmth.
Banana ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendesh’
Then there are avocados (Persea americana). Many home growers will opt to start their own trees from pits, but this will result in large trees unfit for indoor growing. Instead, choose a dwarf tree such as the avocado ‘Day’. This compact selection and will produce small avocados from July to September. Bring them indoors in a brightly lit location through winter.
These fruits are best purchased as plants, but most are not readily available at your neighborhood nursery. To find them search for a specialty online plant source, such as Logee’s Plants for Home and Garden. Good online nurseries such as this offer a wide selection of compact tropical plants ideal for indoor container culture.
Potting Indoor Tropical Fruits
Most of these small trees sold in 4- to 6-inch pots, so plants are small at purchase time. Plant them in a slightly larger pot using Fafard Professional Potting Mix, and provide them with good light. Pots should have drainage holes and bottom saucers. Try to maintain even moisture and high humidity, and feed them with a tropical fruit tree fertilizer, as directed.
When the plants begin to outgrow their pots, upgrade them as needed for ample root growth. Those that are fruiting size, usually 4 to 5 feet, require relatively large pots.
Pot your tropical fruits now, and in a year or two, you will be harvesting your own home-grown tastes of the tropics.
When flower-filled summer containers die back at the end of the season, don’t put those empty pots away. Convert your vacant outdoor planters into beautiful showpieces for the holidays. Take pruned evergreen and berried branches, dry grass plumes, and dry hydrangea flowers to make festive DIY outdoor holiday containers that will remain attractive well into winter.
Gathering Holiday Container Materials
Winter branches and dried flowers can be purchased, but it’s more cost effective if you have these materials in your own landscape or garden. Pine, fir, or spruce branches are perfect for that touch of greenery. Holly and winter berry branches will add color and substance as will red twig dogwood or curly willow branches. If you have ornamental grasses with dried seed heads or hydrangeas with dried flower heads, these add substance to outdoor winter containers, especially if given a little glitz with metallic spray paint. Finally, pine cones, magnolia seed heads or sweet gum balls make an excellent addition, so use them if you have them.
Materials needed for holiday containers
Creating these containers is no different than putting together a large winter bouquet, but instead of a vase, you use a planter with potting mix. Long branches make bolder showpieces with bigger impact, so start with branches that are at least 2-3 feet in length, and trim them as needed.
Your container composition will depend on the materials you have on hand, but this is the formula I use for one large container.
A large planter filled with potting mix
6-8 large evergreen branches
One large berried holly or winter berry branch
10 dried hydrangea and grass plumes
5 red twig dogwood branches (curly willow or other spray painted bare branches would work)
Gold or silver spray paint for the hydrangea plumes
Make sure your pot is filled with potting mix to support the branches. Place the pot in its final location before arranging; this will allow you to consider appearance and size as you craft the piece. If your container will be placed against a wall, set the showiest branches along the front.
Start by adding the greenery—placing the tallest branches towards the middle. Trim additional branches to place along the periphery. Next, add the colorful ornamental branches concentrically around the container. Set the berried branch in the center, and follow up by placing the dried hydrangea flowers along the edges. Add the grass plumes around the composition, and center one tall plume behind the berries. Nestle pine cones along the base and in the greenery or bare branches.
1. Start by adding the greenery
2. Add the ornamental branches
3. Add your berried branch in the center
4. Add your holly branches
5. Add the hydrangea around the base
6. Place the grass plumes along the center and sides
6. Nestle in the the pine cones, and you are done!
Create Your Own Container Design
These containers should reflect your personal style and home, so get creative and design your own. There are lots of things you can do to make them bigger, bolder, or more glittery. Adding stark but colorful branches in the center of your container and surrounding them with greenery and pine cones creates a bold, attractive look. For added glitz, spiral some lights around each arrangement, embellish with a few glittery outdoor ornaments, or add a bright, colorful bow. It’s up to you!
These impressive home containers are decorated with evergreens, southern magnolia leaves, broomseed plumes, curly willow, and red twig dogwood. (Image from Newfields, Indianapolis, IN)
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