Billbergia is just one genus within the large family of striking tropical plants called Bromeliads. Bromeliads, and especially Billbergias, are not the commonest indoor houseplant, but the unique flowers make them worth seeking out. Many Bromeliads are easy to care for, and Billbegia are among those carefree selections.
At right: Queen's tears bloom, by DG subscriber htop
The classic Queen's tears is Billbergia nutans. The name suggests a riches-to-rags story, but there doesn't seem to be one. The link to royalty may be the rich pink and purple on the magnificent blooms. The tears are drops of nectar that form on the flowers. Or just maybe it's the "weeping" form (like weeping cherry) of the flower spike itself that made someone think of tears. However it came about, the name draws attention to a fascinating and easy care plant. Like many Bromeliads, Queen's tears grows leathery, strap shaped arching leaves from a tight rosette. The leaves form a natural vase or funnel at the center. In the wild, this vase catches rainwater and droppings of whatever blows or creeps by. When Queen's tears blooms, a spike emerges from the center of the rosette. It gets longer, bends earthward, and blossoms into the complex and colorful flower you see above.
Another familiar name for Billbergia is "friendship plant." That's a reference to the prolific "pupping" of the plants, and the ease with which owners can pass those plants along. When a mother plant blooms, that particular rosette then enters a phase of growing offshoots. Often the main rosette produces two pups at a time. You can imagine then how a pot might suddenly fill up with spears of young Billbergia.
As I looked for care advice for my Queen's tears, I discovered that there are many more beautiful Billbergia to explore. Since nutans was brought into cultivation, other Billbergia species were found, and many hybrids then developed. B. pyramidalis, for example, is quite showy with an erect cone shaped bloom of densely packed red or pink florets. Still doubt that easy care claim? This plant is nicknamed "Foolproofplant." Brightly colored and variegated foliage makes many of the new hybrids breathtaking, even without bloom.
In the 1980s, Billbergia hobbyist Don Beadle became a passionate and prolific Billbergia hybridizer. Many plants' descriptions bear reference to their "Beadle" origins. These, and other Billbergia species and hybrids, are never stocked at my local (deep in Suburbia, Maryland) nurseries or garden centers. Readers who live in souithern California or Florida may find them more easily. In those zones, Bromeliads are used in landscaping. But a simple web search yields numerous choices in Billbergia with unique foliage colors and patterns and flowering forms.
At right: macro of Billbergia bloom, also known as Flaming Torch, by DG member fisherwink
Billbergia rate highly on the easy care scale for houseplants. Many gardeners report success with a wide range of conditions, even abuse, for their Billbergia. These plants mostly originate in South America. They are tropical, not able to withstand hard frozen winter; however, they are often reported as tolerating light freezes into the 20s F and bouncing right back. Gardeners in deep South should feel confident using these in a well drained, in-ground landscape or outdoor pot. Zone 7 and colder areas will grow them in pots or baskets that can be brought indoors for winter. Between those extremes, gardeners may choose to play it safe or push the zone. Since these plants multiply regularly, owners tend to accumulate enough specimens to do both.
Queen's tears and its dozens of siblings like a bright but shaded location in general. Those who can grow them in the ground are in places with strong sun, and will place them in shade. The plants may well tolerate more sun as a basket or pot plant in the north. There are many reports of these plants growing in sunny places. Gradually acclimatizing the plant to a bright place, while watching for stress or sunburn, should demosntrate what any particular Billbergia enjoys in a given site.
For continued flowering, the plant needs to grow new pups. Older rosettes can be trimmed down once their pups have grown about a third their size. Epsom salts give a boost of magnesium that can be critical to many plats' health and so may help flowering. Add a tablespoon of epsom salts per gallon of water used on the plants. Another trick to induce flowering is to place an apple next to any Bromeliad, and loosely cover both with a plastic bag for a week. THis should induce flowers, but remember that any given rosette will only flower once.
Billbergia are almost orchid-like in their need for a well drained root zone. According to "Fundamental Bromeliad Care" published by the Bromeliad Society of Broward County, "Bromeliads want to be drenched -- and then dried -- and then drenched again." They can be mounted on wood or bark, or planted in coarse potting mix. For Queen's tears and others with a weeping flower spray, remember to elevate on a stand or by hanging, for the height needed to appreciate the long stems. Like any Bromeliad with a "cup," water the rosettes and let the overflow moisten the root zone. Bromeliad fanciers often use only mild, diluted fertilizer during the growing season, and rainwater or filtered water during the low light months of the year. Slow release flower fertilizer, applied spring and fall to the soil, is the fertlizer regimen recommended in the Broward County publication.
Pups are offsets from a mature rosette. These are the friendship parts of the plant. Pups can be separated from mature plants when the pups are a third to about half the size of the mother rosette. Cut the pup off, and remove a bottom leaf or two to expose stem for rooting. "Fundamental Bromeliad Care" linked above gives a more detailed description of this simple process. Plant or mount the pups as described. Then find a friend, or make one with the offer of a unique, lovely, and easy care new plant.
At right: Billbergia 'Caramba' a Don Beadle hybrid showing colorful leaves, photographed by palmbob, see original photo at http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/showimage/200759/ (Thank you, palmbob!)
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Links and credits
Fundamental Bromeliad Care, Bromeliad Society of Broward County, http://www.bromeliadsocietybc.com/uploads/1/8/8/3/18836226/broms_fundamental.pdf accessed 11-23-2014
Andreas, Karen, Don Beadle - Mr. Billbergia's Deep Legacy, http://fcbs.org/articles/Don_Beadle_Bio.htm accessed 11-23-2014, published by Florida Council of Bromeliad Societies, http://fcbs.org/Thumbnail photo of B. nutans by DG subscriber "htop" - cropped, resized; see full photo here http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/showimage/182253/ (Thank you, htop!)
Photo of B. pyramidalis, aka Flaming torch, by DG member "fisherwink" - resized, see original at http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/showimage/264676/ (Thank you, fisherwink!)