Bromeliads are among the most spectacular house and landscape plants available, but they are also one of the most overlooked. The following is a brief introduction to most of the bromeliad genera available in cultivation.
I have already written a few short articles on some of my favorite terrestrial bromeliads (the ones that I treat like cacti): Puyas and Dyckias and Hechtias.But there are many other fantastic bromeliad varieties in cultivation and all are worthy of collecting and using in the landscape.The following is only an introduction, as it would be impossible to cover ALL the bromeliads. Even books on bromeliads only scratch the surface of what's growing out there in the world.
There are about 3,000 species of bromeliads (and more being discovered nearly every week, it seems.)This is one of the most colorful of all the plant families in terms of both foliage and flower varieties.Bromeliads come in an unbelievable variety of colors; some are nearly fluorescent, and many are unique among the plant kingdom.
(left) Bromeliad Garden in Thailand . (right) Bromeliads on display in cactus and succulent show.
(left) Bromeliads in the landscape of a botanical garden. (right) Bromeliads used as landscaping in a private garden.
Most bromeliads are made up of a rosette of leaves and a wimpy root system at the end of a seemingly absent or very short stem, though there are exceptions. They vary in size from huge (over 5 feet tall--15 feet or more if you include the flower) to really tiny (less than 2 inches tall), and have leaves that may be wide, shiny and heavily armed with teeth, or thin, grass-like, rough or nearly transparent.
(left) This Alcanterea imperialis is about 4 feet wide. (right) Tillandsia stricta, a relatively tiny bromeliad.
Most bromeliads are epiphytic in nature and live in humid situations (95% are from Central and South America.)However, as discussed in my previous articles, there are some very desert-oriented plants that tolerate full, hot sun and very little water at all.Some of the epiphytic species grow in rocks and crevices and aren't really true epiphytes, though they act like they are, taking no nourishment from any soil.And some have 'ordinary' root systems and can be planted in the garden as one would most other plants.But the true epiphytes are often the most fascinating, seeming to live off air and nothing else (a.k.a. air plants.)These plants still have roots, but their roots are mostly to hold them onto something.
(left) Bromeliads (probably Aechmeas) growing in lava rock/soil. (middle) Two different bromeliads growing as epiphytes. (right) Neoregelia 'Fire Ball'.
Three examples of terrestrial 'desert' bromeliads (all discussed in previous articles): Puya alpestris, Hechtia gayii and Dyckia fosteriana x
Most bromeliads that I have yet to discuss are happier in shady gardens or at least receive some protection from the hot, arid sun.And few bromeliads can tolerate much frost at all, so most are best used either in greenhouses, or in gardens of those living in warm temperate or tropical zones.The bromeliads that are best suited to full sun just also happen to be the ones that can tolerate the most frost as well.These are also one of the best of all the house plants and can be happy in pots on a window sill for their entire lives.I haven't had much luck with these as house plants but that is because they need a tad more attention than I am willing to give them, compared to how little attention they need outdoors.But they are at least potentially great house plants.
The 'average bromeliad', despite being somewhat tropical in its needs, actually does not want to be watered much; excess watering is the best way to kill most bromeliads (I know this from vast personal experience killing them.) When 'planting' a bromeliad in potting soil, remember that in nature, most of these plants are not in soil at all but are epiphytic.Their roots are still kept moist by the constant humidity and rain, but the surfaces upon which the roots are imbedded are obviously extremely well draining.For the most part, their roots are not tolerant of sitting in constantly wet soils, and water uptake is not a primary function of their roots.These plants often absorb most of their water from the environment or by trapping it in their rosettes.One experienced nursery woman told me to water the plants, not the soil (opposite of how most succulents, cycads and palms should be watered, so it took me a while to adjust.)
Neoregelias with water trapped in their centers
With a few exceptions, bromeliads are monocarpic plants.This means that once they are done flowering, the flowering rosette dies.Fortunately most of these plants produce offsets and life goes on.Some species are not monocarpic; Dyckias and Tillandsias are two notable exceptions.
Many bromeliads have incredible flowers, but the flowers signify the end of the plant's life
Many bromeliads collect rain water which can sometimes support other forms of life (frogs, snails and countless insects.) If you live in a tropical climate, it is likely you will be able to enjoy watching this fascinating and dynamic microenvironment, but you may also be creating an unwanted haven for mosquito larvae. Here in California, this is not a huge concern as it is too arid for water to last long enough in these plants to make this a real problem. But if you have ever visited a large bromeliad garden in Hawaii or southern Florida as I have, you may begin to rethink adding too many of these plants to your garden.
The following is a brief overview of some of the more popular genera with which I have had at least some experience.There are dozens of genera I will not touch upon, either because I know nothing about them or I have no images to include in this article.
Aechmea:This is a very large genus of plants and includes some very common plants available at most nurseries throughout the world.I am not exactly clear what makes an Aechmea an Aechmea. It is probably something unique about their flowers and this is a group of bromeliads with generally large, spectacular flowers.These make excellent plants for periodic indoor use, as their flower tend to last for a relatively long time. Most are somewhat epiphytic and tropical; a few very terrestrial forms are popular, including some that adjust very well to arid soils and full sun exposure. In general Aechmeas have relatively wide, round-tipped leaves that are heavily armed with very sharp teeth (though many are not armed) forming horizontally oriented, wide, spreading rosettes.In general these tend to be fairly easy plants to keep but are prone to rot if their soils are kept too wet.
(left) Probably one of the most recognizable Aechmeas is Aechmea fasciata, a very common house plant. (middle and right) Aechmea fascitata 'Lauren', a variegated variety of this species.
Aechmea recurvata, an arid climate species
Aechmea recurvata var. benrathii is a gorgeous hardy species that does well both in pots and in a desert-like landscape
(left) Aechmea 'Burgundy'. (middle) Aechmea orlandiana in pot. (right) Aechmea orlandiana in landscape.
Some Aechmea flowers: Aechmea blumenavii, Aechmea coelestis and Aechmea gamosepala
(left) One of my favorites, Aechmea blanchetiana. (middle) Flowers of Aechmea diclamydea. (right) Aechmea dischantha.
Alcantarea: Though not a very large genus, this includes one of the most spectacular of all the bromeliads, Alcantarea imperialis, a huge plant with amazing colors and a monstrous, intricate, gigantic flower. I have not grown this, but have seen it growing outdoors in southern California well, so it has some hardiness.
(left) Alcantarea imperialis starting to bloom. (right) Mature flower.
Ananas:Anyone who has eaten a pineapple is at least somewhat familiar with this genus of bromeliad.Most of these are terrestrial plants which have 'pineapple-like' flowers.These plants have long, strap-like, sharply armed leaves and sucker profusely.
(left) Flowers/fruits of Ananas comosa, true pineapple (photo by JaxFlaGardener--thanks) (middle) Ananas ananasoides (right) Ananas bracteatus
(left) Ananas ananasoides in desert garden. (middle) Ananas bracteatus striatus . (right) Ananas nanus in the tropics.
Billbergia:This is another very large genus (about 60 species) of plants commonly encountered at nurseries.These are more terrestrial than the Aechmeas and a bit harder to kill from over watering (though I have still managed to kill a few.)Generally these are more vertically oriented plants with upright leaves. The arching, pendulous flowers are often brightly colored but don't tend to last long.Some are amazingly hardy, easy plants while others are so tropical they struggle in all but the warmest greenhouses.
One of the most common Billbergias in cultivation is Billbergia nutans, an easy plant and great flowers
Bromelia:Though this is a fairly large genus (about 50 species,) only a few are commonly encountered in cultivation.All the ones I am familiar with are formidable plants, so heavily and dangerously armed that you can be seriously injured handling them.These few I know are terrestrial and relatively hardy plants, rivaling the Puyas for drought and cold hardiness.Their flowers are not spectacular, but the foliage can be remarkably brilliant in some species, notably Bromelia balansae.
Bromelia balansae (normal and variegated)
Bromelia balansae flower
Progression of Bromelia: flowers to fruits starting to form, to fully ripe fruits (the Bromelia equivalent of the pineapple.)
Cryptanthus:This is another genus of about 50 species, but again, most are virtually unknown to the average plant collector.Some are quite recognizable, known as the Earth Stars. These are small, horizontally oriented, purplish, zebra-striped plants often grown en masse in botanical gardens.I have a few varieties of Cryptanthus in the garden and have discovered these can be easy plants to both over- and under-water (the ones I have are not particularly epiphytic.) But I have some Cryptanthus growing in partial shade that have been doing well for four years now. I find these do best if not looked at much; looking at them makes me want to treat them 'better', which usually turns out to make things worse and then they die. So I just 'ignore' these and they seem to do fine that way.
Cryptanthus 'Lisa Vinzant' (photo by chanin) Cryptanthus bivittatus 'Pink Starlight'
Cryptanthus warasii Cryptanthus 'Ocean Mist'
Cryptanthus 'Cornine' Cryptanthus bahianus
Cryptanthus 'Desert Sand' Cryptanthus bivittatus varieties for sale at nursery.
Cryptanthus used in landscaping in Thailand.
Deuterocohnia: These are unusual, relatively small but colony forming terrestrial bromeliads that excel in arid, hot climates. Many people might not think of these as bromeliads, but as some form of succulent because of their xerophytic nature. These are very spiny dull green to nearly white plants with stiff, armed and wickedly pointed leaf tips. They can be grown in highly ornamental mounds in pots or the landscape. This is one of the non-monocarpic species, though their flowers are somewhat less than spectacular (some species seem hardly ever to flower at all.) I have grown several of these and--if treated like a cactus--seem to be pretty easy plants to grow.
Amazing specimen of Deuterocohnia brevifolia in pot. In the landscape in desert garden.
Guzmania:Of all the bromeliads, these may be the most recognizable to the inexperienced bromeliad grower; they are grown in massive numbers for consumption as house plants all over the world.These are the unarmed, lily-like plants (flat, green leaves) with the spectacular red, yellow, pink, purple etc. flowers that seem to last forever, which is why they are so popular. This is a large genus of over 150 species, although only a few are common in cultivation.In fact, almost all the cultivated plants are hybrids.I have found these to be fairly poor garden plants and not easy to keep alive past the flowering stage (monocarpic of course, but they often don't live long enough to produce offsets.)At least most of them are fairly inexpensive.
(left) Guzmania 'Cherry' (photo Giancarlo) (middle) Guzmania in the landscape in California. (right) Guzmania 'Kapoho Fire' (photo by Chamma)
Neoregelia:There are probably about 100 species of this genus; many are seen in cultivation, thanks to the popularity of their foliar variety.Some of these horizontally oriented terrestrial or epiphytic plants are among the most spectacularly colored plants in the entire plant kingdom. (Vriesias nearly equal them in variety of colors and patterns of their foliage.) The flowers of this species are very small and often a striking lavender color, barely peeking out beyond the central cup in the center of the rosette.Most have armed leaves, but many do not.I have pretty good luck keeping these plants alive as they seem to tolerate more sporadic over-watering than some of the other bromeliads, and few rot from sitting in constantly damp soils.Still, I can rot one without too much effort if I really try.
(left) Neoregelia 'Bingito' (middle) Neoregelia 'Gladiator' (right) Neoregelia 'Caroline' in my garden.
Nidularium:This is a relatively small family of bromeliads (less than 50) which I personally cannot tell from the Neoregelias.Most are unheard of in cultivation, but those that are sure look a lot like Neoregelias to me.Supposedly this group of plants is relatively cold hardy and can grow in very low light situations.I have not personally grown any, however.
Nidularium innocentii in landscape
Orthophytum: This is a smaller genus of less than 20 species, but some interesting hybrids. These are thin-leaved, delicate plants that look a bit like sea urchins, though some look like Dyckias and some like Cryptanthus. These are terrestrial plants that are great for arid climates, and make good potted specimensas well
Tillandsia:Otherwise known as air plants, this is a massive genus with many hundreds of species, most which are impossible for someone like me to tell apart.Almost all these are air plants, though a few can be grown in soil; or are epiphytic.Their leaves tend to be whitish and scaly, though some smooth green varieties exist.Many have twisted, bizarre leaf patterns and some come in spectacular shades of red and pink.Their flowers tend to be quite colorful with some being simply incredible, while others are small and subtle. These are not monocarpic plants so with proper care, you can keep these plants around for dozens of years.For the most part, Tillandsias seem to tolerate more direct sun than most other epiphytic bromeliads, though many still cannot tolerate our blistering summer sun here in California.And most being air plants, over watering is less of an issue (still, I have rotted a few that way.)
Tillandsia ionantha in a plant show... showing great color in spring time when flowering.
(left) Tillandsia cyanea is one of the most popular tillandsias with its brilliant pink flattened flower. (right) Tillandsia cyanea growing on a cliff face in Hawaii.
(left) Tillandsia ionanthas flowering. (middle) Unknown species on palm trunk in Hawaii (right) My own flowering hanging on a wire.
(left) Tillandsia nidus (middle) Tillandsia xerographica in show . (right) My own Tillandsia xerographica
(left and middle) Tillandsia caticola and flower. (right) Tillandsia fasciculata
(left and middle) Tillandsia usneoides, a.k.a. Spanish Moss, is another familiar species; note small flowers in middle photo. (right) Some Tillandsias get pretty large like this unknown species that is over 2 feet on a tree (over 3 feet when flowering)
Vriesea:The last genus to be covered in this brief article is one of the most spectacularly decorated of all the bromeliads. I think some of the plants in this genus are my favorite of all the bromeliads. They are the kind of plants you can just stare at over and over again in amazement.Additionally many have large, lance-like bright red flowers which only add to their amazing appearance.These flowers can sometimes last for many weeks. These are horizontally oriented rosettes of unarmed, wide, intricately striped arching leaves.Most are from tropical areas of South America but some are surprisingly hardy, as well as tolerating more sun than you would predict.I have rotted a few of these and burned a few to death in too much sun; however, most I have tried are relatively forgiving plants.But these can be costly and I have been too nervous to acquire some of the really large, beautiful ones.
For more information on Bromeliads, you can find several good books in the Garden Bookworm here on Dave's Garden.Bromeliads are one of the most thoroughly illustrated families of exotic, tropical plants on the Florida Council of Bromeliad Societies website, an incredible site with thousands of accurately identified plants for all to view (I wish there were similarly thoroughly illustrated web sites for all the exotic plants I am interested in.)
About Geoff Stein
Veterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.