Care and feeding of bromeliads

By WANDA CHURCH

From time to time when my husband goes out to do his “guy shopping” he brings me the brightest, prettiest plant he can find. A year or so ago around Christmas time, he brought a bromeliad with a fiery red blossom and bright green leaves, which fit right in with the Christmas season, and I used it as a centerpiece on the dining room table.

The flowers are actually “bracts” similar to the poinsettia. It was a beautiful, healthy plant, and it took me several months to kill it. Growing bromeliads was new to me, and I unintentionally overwatered it, but not before it had produced four cute little “pups,” That’s the term for their offspring.

Six months later my hubby brought me another bromeliad, much more spectacular than the one before, with curled, gray-green leaves with whitish horizontal stripes surrounding a gorgeous pink blossom interspersed with tiny maroon flowerets. There were no specific instructions with it on how to care for bromeliads, and I didn’t want to take any chances with this beauty, so I went to the Internet for information about them.

I found that worldwide there are about 3,170 bromeliad species native mainly to the tropical Americas, with a few species found in the American subtropics and one in tropical West Africa. The largest plant reaches 10 to 13 feet tall in leaf growth with a flower spike over 30 feet tall (WOW!) and the smallest is probably Spanish moss. The flower spikes retain their color from two weeks up to 12 months, depending on species. The foliage, which usually grows in a rosette, is the most widely patterned and colored of any plant in the world.

Humans have been using bromeliads for thousands of years. The Incas, Aztecs and Maya used them for food, protection, fiber and ceremony, and they are still used today for these purposes. In Europe Spanish conquistadores brought the pineapple, which is a bromeliad, back with them, and it became so popular as an exotic food that the image of the pineapple was adapted into European art and sculpture and as a sign of hospitality. The pineapple is the only bromeliad commonly cultivated for food.

Some species of bromeliads can be grown outdoors, and other types make excellent indoor plants. Generally they like a south, east, or west exposure, without direct sunlight. They don’t have extensive root systems and prefer small pots. Let the roots fill the pot before up-potting them and don’t repot into a really big pot. They like it cozy. Grow them in a very porous planting mixture of one part peat, one part bark, and one part sand or perlite. Fertilize every one to two months with light applications of diluted, general-purpose, liquid houseplant fertilizer. Dilute the recommended dosage to 1/3 to 1/4. In winter, they need less fertilizing.

As houseplants bromeliads do best at 70-75 degrees F during the day and 60-65 degrees F at night. They need a relative humidity of 40 to 60 percent, which is difficult to have here. You can increase the humidity by misting the leaves often or putting the pot on a tray of gravel and water. Just don’t let the pot touch the water.

Story First Published: 2012-12-12