Growing Bromeliads

These striking tropical plants can make a beautiful addition to your home.

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Bromeliad high-res.jpg, courtesy of Costa Farms

Bromeliad high-res.jpg, courtesy of Costa Farms

Bromeliad high-res.jpg, courtesy of Costa Farms

Photo by: Image courtesy of Costa Farms

Image courtesy of Costa Farms

The next time you snack on pineapple in a dessert or fruit salad, consider this: you’re eating a bromeliad. 

While it’s true that pineapples are fruiting bromeliads, most of the bromeliads we’re familiar with are grown primarily for their colorful foliage. They make terrific houseplants, and they’re great outdoor plants for those who live in mild winter areas, or who can bring them in once the temperatures drop.

Many bromeliads produce striking and beautiful flower stalks — some are really flamboyant — as long as they’re given the right amount of light. Check the tag or label on your plant for its specific light requirements. Bright artificial light is usually fine.

There are thousands of species of bromeliads, and they vary widely in appearance. Spanish moss, for example, belongs to the Bromeliaceae family (although it’s not a true moss). Others resemble yuccas or grasses. Some are tiny, while others can grow to 30 feet tall.

Because these plants are native to the American tropics, they prefer warm growing conditions, and do best indoors when the daytime temperatures stay around 70 degrees F, and the nighttime temperatures drop to 55 to 60 degrees F. (They don’t like drafts, so if your plant sits on or near a windowsill, make sure air isn’t leaking in around it.)

You can find terrestrial bromeliads, plants that grow in soil; epiphytic bromeliads, which grow in clumps of organic matter lodged in trees; and saxicolous species, which grow on rocks.

Terrestrials take in water and nutrients through their roots, like most plants, while epiphytes, sometimes called “air plants,” use their roots to cling to branches or limbs. Saxicolous types extend their roots through the cracks in rocks to take moisture and nutrients from the ground.

As long as you live where the winters are mild and warm, or you bring your plants in before the temperatures drop, you can grow bromeliads outside. The epiphytic types are happy with sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees. Just wrap the roots in a ball of damp sphagnum moss and tie the ball loosely to a tree trunk or branch with fishing line. These epiphytes aren’t parasitic, so they won’t harm the tree.

Terrestrial species can be planted in a potting soil made especially for bromeliads. You can also make your growing medium with equal parts potting soil, shredded fir bark and coarse sand. Just make sure the mixture is porous enough to drain easily, so their roots won’t rot.

You won’t need to water most bromeliads as often as ordinary houseplants, but when you do, pour the water into their “vase,” the natural, vase-like reservoir formed by their leaves. It’s thought that bromeliads grown outdoors absorb some of their nutrients from small insects or decaying debris that collects in the vase. They also take in dissolved minerals from rain and dew that falls into the vase. It won’t hurt to dump or flush out the vase every other month or so, if you’re concerned about keeping your plants looking  “clean.” Refill the vase with fresh water.

Because most bromeliads grow slowly, you won’t need to fertilize often. When you do, sprinkle a time-release fertilizer around the base of the terrestrial types. Don’t put the fertilizer into the vase, as it could burn them or promote the growth of algae in the trapped water.

For epiphytic bromeliads, spray a diluted liquid fertilizer onto the leaves several times during the growing season. 

If your bromeliad refuses to bloom, try sealing it in a plastic bag with a ripe apple for about a week. Keep the plant out of the sun. As it decays, the apple will produce ethylene gas, which usually coaxes the plant to produce a flower spike. It may take a couple of months for the flower to appear.  

Don’t be disappointed if your plant blooms once, and never again. The vast majority of bromeliads do this. Just cut off the faded flower stalk and watch for baby bromeliads, or “pups” to appear.

When the pups are about half the size of the parent plant, and start forming roots, cut them away from the parent and pot them up separately. Take care of them, and you’ll have plenty of new, free plants to enjoy.

Try this to grow an inexpensive bromeliad: Save the top from your next fresh pineapple. Strip or cut off the lower leaves, and put the top in a glass of water. Roots should form in about two weeks; then you can pot up your new pineapple in some good quality potting soil.

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