Bromeliads: The best and the brightest


By LINDA BRANDT, correspondent

Bromeliads are as diverse as pineapple and Spanish moss and as interesting and beautiful as any other member of the plant kingdom. Leaves may be grass-thin and less than 2 inches long, waxy, wide, thorny, variegated and up to two feet long. Many store their water supply in a "vase" formed by leaves arranged in a rosette pattern.

Dr. Theresa Bert, president of the Sarasota Bromeliad Society. Here she holds an Billbergia nutans.  (Staff Photo by Thomas Bender)

Dr. Theresa Bert, president of the Sarasota Bromeliad Society. Here she holds an Billbergia nutans. (Staff Photo by Thomas Bender)

Besides green, leaves may be maroon, red, yellow, orange or pink and spotted, striped or mottled. Bromeliads bloom in exquisite colors and combinations: brightest yellow, vibrant pinks, reds and purples, white, green, orange and blue.

Typically the blooms emerge from the center of the plant in forms that include tiny star shapes, tall tree-like forms, spears, feather dusters, birds nests and glorious torches with tiny contrasting flowers emerging from brightly colored flower heads.

Some bromeliads bloom within a year while others may wait 15 or 20.

The gray-green, grass-like foliage of Tillandsia ionantha turns pink, as deep purple-blue flowers emerge.

Aechmea fasciata produces vibrant torch-shaped red flower heads, from which emerge tiny blue flowers, producing a vibrant display.

Aechmea blanchetiana's spectacular treelike inflorescence is bright orange and yellow.

About half of all bromeliads are epiphytic, getting nutrients and moisture from the air. Others are terrestrial and some perch on rocky cliffs sending roots deep into crevices for food and water. Many adapt to whatever conditions they find themselves in, and this can include pots and hanging planters in pool cages and lanais, on and under trees, in rock gardens and even refrigerator magnets. Some require constant care and monitoring, but many others bloom and multiply with little or no encouragement.

No wonder it is impossible to apply one definition to all bromeliads.

There is something all bromeliads have in common, according to the Bromeliad Society International: Tiny scales or trichomes, on their leaves. In hot, dry desert regions where the sun is relentless, these scales help the plant reduce water loss and shield them from solar radiation. On species in more humid areas, the scales are smaller and less noticeable -- often forming beautiful patterns and banding on the leaves.

Theresa Bert, president of the Sarasota Bromeliad Society attributes her 25-year obsession with bromeliads to her husband and the serendipity of stone crabs.

With a Master's Degree in marine biology from the University of South Florida and a Ph.D. from Yale in progress, she had visions of becoming an internationally famous scientist. Her field work on stone crabs in Everglades National Park and her dissertation research at Yale had her making numerous -- 14 in all -- trips between Florida and New Haven, Conn.

While she was house sitting for a professor in New Haven, the head of the Florida Department of Natural Resources tracked her down and offered her a job in St. Petersburg, where one of her colleagues gave her some bromeliads. She 'threw them in the back yard with other stuff -- philodendron, aloe, Christmas cactus -- in pots." One by one, everything died except the bromeliads.

Still planning to become internationally famous, she was spending nights and weekends researching and writing to the point that her husband of just a few years insisted she needed a hobby and encouraged her to attend an upcoming meeting of the Sarasota Bromeliad Society.

Because bromeliads were the only plants she hadn't killed, she attended the meeting, "fell in love and never looked back."

As a scientist, Bert began to study the ecology, taxonomy and evolution of bromeliad species -- and the more she studied, the more time and money she spent until it became obvious that her hobby, which she has described as "bromeliads run amok," was going to have to support itself.

So she started giving talks, and before long she was lecturing around the United States and at world bromeliad conferences. So in a way that she may not have expected, Bert has become internationally known.


A Portea alatasepala. Dr. Theresa Bert, president of the Sarasota Bromeliad Society, off camera, has lots bromeliads at her home in Bradenton.  (Staff Photo by Thomas Bender)

A Portea alatasepala. Dr. Theresa Bert, president of the Sarasota Bromeliad Society, off camera, has lots bromeliads at her home in Bradenton. (Staff Photo by Thomas Bender)

Any number of bromeliads will thrive in Southwest Florida yards, and Bert has some tips for making that happen.

Nurseries and hobbyist shows are good places to begin building your collection because you will likely meet someone who knows a lot about caring for the plants you have chosen. Check the websites for sales by both the Sarasota and the Fort Myers Caloosahatchee bromeliad societies. If you do find a bromeliad in a garden center that is labeled with just its botanical name, you can go to Google and type in its genus (the first word in the botanical name) for information on how to care for your plant and what to expect.


Aechmea, Vriesia and Guzmania can be found in home stores' garden centers and even supermarkets.

Like most other bromeliads, they should be protected from cold, and Bert recommends covering them with cloth (not plastic) or bringing them indoors if the temperature dips below 40 degrees F.

Aechmea produce interesting and attractive foliage surrounding deep cups to hold water. The popular Aechmea fasciata is often called the urn or living vase plant because its green and white mottled leaves provide a vase for its spectacular bright pink inflorescence. Because it is easy to grow and readily available, Bert recommends it for beginners.

Guzmania have thin, glossy strap-like leaves that form a water-holding rosette. Clusters of red, white or yellow flowers appear from behind orange, yellow or red bracts on a terminal spike. They may be epiphytic or terrestrial.

Vriesea's distinctive leaves may be spotted, blotched or otherwise distinctively marked. Long-lasting inflorescences have yellow, green or white flowers and brightly colored bracts.

Epiphytic Billbergia pyramidalis' bloom is spectacular, says Bert, but only lasts about a week, unlike other bromeliads whose blooms may last a month or more.

Bert describes Cryptanthus as a "cute little genus" that makes a good ground cover in shady areas. Its small white flowers emerge from the middle of the plant and the pups are borne on long branches and can be removed and planted to create ground cover. Cryptanthus are commonly referred to as "earth stars" because their leaves grow low and parallel to the ground in a star-like arrangement

Tillandsia includes Spanish moss, ball moss and other tree dwellers. Large Tillandsia utriculata and Tillandsia fasciculata blooms will go to seed and populate your trees. Look for them in nurseries and at hobbyist sales. There are excellent photos at .

Neoregelia bromeliads are known for the rich red color at the center of the plant from which the long-lasting flower head emerges, producing two or three blooms a day. They are usually available in home stores and garden centers.

Beautiful flowers emerge from the middle of Nidularium bromeliads, which are quite cold hardy, but need protection from direct sunlight.

The commercial pineapple is a member of Ananas, which also includes a variegated form with green, pin, and cream striped leaves more than two feet across.


It is possible to grow bromeliads from seeds, but Bert describes this as a "hellish nightmare that takes half your adult life."

So pups are the way to go. Once the mother plant has flowered, it produces from one to a dozen pups and begins to decline.

You can hasten pup production by cutting the blooms off bromeliads. They are spectacular and long-lasting in flower arrangements. Once the pups have emerged from the side of the mother plant, you can separate them at the base or leave them attached.

Many a home gardener has discovered that it is almost impossible to kill some bromeliads. Thinking their plant dead, they might have tossed it aside to decompose and eventually enrich the soil, only to discover it a few weeks later -- with new plants, pups, emerging from the discarded mother plant. Depending upon the plant, this may take weeks or up to 6 months. However, if the base of the bromeliad is firm, not squishy, there is a chance that it is viable and will reproduce.

Unlike the adaptable Aechmea fasciata, which often grows under trees, not all bromeliads tolerate leaf litter, and even those that do will bloom and produce pups more readily if you occasionally flush out the vase formed by the leaves. Put the hose (don't use a pressure nozzle) into the middle of the plant and flush until water runs out around sides. To save water, says Bert, you can put on gloves and a long-sleeve gardening shirt and clean out the bulk of leaves by hand before flushing with the hose.

Bromeliads, which require less fertilizer than most other plants, will decay if over-fertilized. Bert's safe and foolproof method calls for lightly sprinkling grains of a six-month timed-release fertilizer on the ground among terrestrial bromeliads.

Just because epiphytic bromeliads can get their food and water from the air doesn't mean you can hang them up and forget about them. Like all plants, they need water and sunlight. Even those that are anchored in small shells and sold as refrigerator magnet souvenirs need light and water. Epiphytic bromeliads mounted on bark or boards can be watered by misting or dousing them in a container of water, according to Black and Dehgan.

Some concern has been raised regarding mosquito larvae that may be in water storing bromeliads. It takes two weeks for mosquitoes to mature from larva to adult, according to Bert, so she flushes the bromeliads with a hose at intervals of less than that and has never had a problem.

Last modified: January 3, 2014
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