In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
August, 2012
Regional Report

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An array of epiphytic bromeliads provides a curiously dramatic focal point indoors all year.

A Bounty of Bromeliads

Just like your sister may be a size two while you stand tall in a ten, plants that are closely related can vary wildly in size. Nowhere is this wonderful quality more evident than in the Bromeliaceae, the family of bromeliads and their kin.

Grow Vases, Drapes, and Stars
When you grow bromeliads, you grow vase shapes, living mobiles, and starfish. Everyone loves a living vase of colorful leaves with stunning flowers that last for months. The colors last just as well in a hot sunroom or air conditioned bedroom. The incredible vase types include selections in the genera Aechmea and Neoregelia, including the popular blushing bromeliad, Neoregelia carolinae f. tricolor. Gray-striped, bottle green speckled red, and nearly yellow leaves hold a strong shapely form with minimal care.

Vase bromeliads can be grown in pots or in clumps of moss attached to driftwood. Their roots need occasional water, but keep a consistent supply in the vase, adding a dilute fertilizer a few times each year. Flowers begin to show as a color change in the center of the vase, and rise or expand very slowly. You cannot ignore a vase bromeliad beginning to bloom, as each day brings subtle changes to enjoy.

Tillandsias have no traditional leaves. Instead, they look like hairy gray tufts with impossibly charming flower spikes hanging from them, like an organic mobile. Airy and fine textured, this group lives happily and multiplies readily.

Earth stars, Crypthanthus spp., hug the ground with bright striped leaves spread out like the arms of a starfish. They are tiny compared to the vase types but coarse in texture, often with serrated leaf edges.

Wait for Flowers
I believe it is part of Nature's grand plan that bromeliads have fascinating leaves, since otherwise we might not have the patience to wait for the flowers. It can take a year for flowers to appear or longer if the plant is greatly stressed. Fortunately, bromeliad flowers can last for months, but eventually do fade, stretch, lean, and may tip the pot over or hang too heavily. But keep going with this mother plant. Prop it up or slide the pot into a larger one so you can continue to water and fertilize it. At this stage, water the soil or moss as well as the vase, and watch for tiny green bumps to appear at the base of the vase. The pups should be removed as soon as they are large enough to handle, then planted to start their own lives. I use a bark-rich, very well-drained potting mix for bromeliads that require soil. I like to use gourds as hanging nests for the epiphytic tillandsias that don't require soil as a growing medium. They do not require much attention of any sort, another quality I find endearing.

Discover Edible Bromeliads
Remember that Bromeliaceae is called the pineapple family. And it's not hard to grow this well-known edible member of the clan. All it takes is space, about 3 square feet, with a 12 inch pot in the center, and a year or so of your time. If you purchase plants, look for home garden favorites like 'Smooth Cayenne' and 'Sugarloaf', the latter of which has white flesh and a tasty core. Dwarf pineapple plants, Ananas nana, are available, but their fruits are also smaller.

To start your own plant from a fruit, slice the crown off a fresh pineapple with about an inch of fruit flesh below it. Place it, fruit side down, in a shallow dish of water, then watch for roots to show at the base in a few weeks. Once roots have formed, pot up the pineapple and grow it on in a bright, sunny location for about a year. Then get ready; a stem will emerge from the center crowned by a baby fruit that will mature in several weeks. You will never impress your friends more than when you harvest a homegrown pineapple, then peel, slice, and grill it as they look on hungrily.

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