Working in the garden and designing in different climates often requires an extensive plant pallet to keep things fresh to the eye. One of my favorite plants to use in dark, light and wet areas comes from the Bromeliaceae family. These plants are commonly known as bromeliads.
Rich in history and just as colorful, you have probably seen many lovely types being sold in the supermarket near the checkout stands because of their striking flowers and variegated leaves. There are over 3,170 known species, many of which have dissimilar structures like the Spanish Moss (which is neither) and other members that resemble Aloe Vera, Yuccas or leafy green grasses.
Bromeliads are a Neotropical plant. This means that they grow almost exclusively in the New World tropics and (subtropics). These plants can handle some temperature variation. They range from Chile and Argentina in South America through Central America past the Caribbean to their northern limits of Virginia. Many types have even been found in the desert at sea level and up to 14,000 feet in the high moist mountains.
Of the many types, bromeliads can be separated into a few different classifications. Some grow exclusively in soils, leaf litter or on the ground. These are terrestrial species. Others known as saxicolous species are found growing on rocks. Sometimes this kind can be found on sheer rocky cliffs where their roots penetrate the rock fissures of the cliffs in search of nutrients deep within the rocky fissures.
Some of my favorite types of bromeliads are the “Air Plants” or Epiphytic species. These can be found growing on other plants and usually trees. They have even been found on telephone wires and manmade structures in the environment. They take nothing from their hosts and seem to gather nutrients and moisture from the air alone. Being a low maintenance kind of guy, these are my favorite plants.
One of the most famous of all Bromeliads and possibly the reason for their discovery and proliferation throughout Europe and the world at large is the pineapple. It is truly the only fruiting Bromeliad found in nature and was discovered by Christopher Columbus upon his visit to the Carib Indians in the West Indies.
Columbus promptly returned to Spain with this amazing fruit and it soon became the toast of royalty, exemplifying extreme wealth and importance for not only those attending but for those throwing the lavish dinner parties where it was consumed and displayed prominently.
In fact, it took the European Garden and hot house specialists almost 200 years beginning in the early 1500s to create a successful cultivation system for growing this famous Bromeliad. Even in the colonies, where entertainment was primarily based on visiting and having dinner conversation with friends and members of the community, large expensive parties focused on the pineapple as a rare treat for the rich and powerful.
Some intrepid less endowed matriarchs of the time would even go so far as to rent this bromeliad fruit for the night without consuming it to place it prominently on display for this very reason.
All Bromeliads share a common characteristic. They each have tiny scales on their leaves called Trichomes. These tiny scales act as a very efficient absorption system for water. Many species found in dry environments have such large and tight Trichomes that they appear silvery white in color and feel fuzzy to the touch. Sometimes these scales can form patterns and banding on the leaves that add to their beauty.
Most Bromeliads have amazing color on their leaves and upon the flower stalk emanating from the center of these plants. This stalk is known as a scape and may have flowers nestled inside low and deep in the plant or hanging out where it can be seen near the end.
Once a Bromeliad blooms, that’s it. No more flowers or leaf production will occur but new “pups” or “offsets” near the base will emanate from inside the sheath of an existing leaf and draw sustenance from the “mother plant” for a season or two before it withers and dies.
Choose your Bromeliads based upon their color and sun needs. They are a great addition to any garden.