Bromeliads are worlds unto themselves

02/07/2014 1:48 PM

02/07/2014 1:49 PM

Peek into the center of a wild jungle bromeliad, and you’ll find an entire ecosystem there. Within the whorled leaves of these tropical gift plants – Valentine’s Day idea – is a well that is usually full of water.

In its native habitat, this well collects organic matter that decomposes, releasing nitrogen into the water, which in turn feeds algae and other single-celled organisms. The resulting nutritious soup makes bromeliads a favorite haunt of tree frogs, snails, tiny crabs and salamanders. These creatures can live their entire lives within a single large bromeliad, feeding on the riches of these soupy reservoirs.

Fortunately, bromeliads are widely available through garden centers and florists and often are given as gifts during the holidays and throughout the year. They’re displayed at home improvement stores with the orchids, which are equally unforgiving of the cold.

Why are these popular gift plants so compelling? It’s because bromeliads feature both super-exotic foliage and odd flower stalks of intense day-glow hues. The flower stalks last months and then fade, but if you know how to tend the plant, it will live on to find a second life on the summer patio.

Most decorative bromeliads hail from the humid jungles of equatorial South America. They bloom once, about three years after planting. The bloom spikes are almost always neon bright and offer intense color relished by florists and interior designers. No other tropical is as well suited to modern organic style.

When selecting bromeliads, be aware that the stiffer leaf types grow in sunnier, drier habitats, so they need more light indoors and are forgiving of central heating and arid climates. Soft-leaf bromeliads are adapted to the shady conditions of the rainforest and do well in humid summer regions, conservatories, atriums or spaces beneath large shade trees.

Bromeliad crops are shipped by greenhouse growers just as the bloom is reaching full size. Once the bloom fades, the whole plant is often discarded when it is still full of life. Simply cut away the stalk at the base when it discolors. If you have a vivid foliage type, you’ll have a great-looking plant that can live for up to two years after the flower is gone.

Once flowering is over, the bromeliad produces offsets or “pups” at the base of each plant, like many succulents do. They will be genetically identical to the parent plant and can be cut off with roots attached, then pressed into a new pot with soil similar to that of the mother plant. Keep pups evenly moist and at the same light level as the parent. In one to three years, each will mature into a full-sized adult and bloom, so the cycle begins again.

Bromeliads are geared for copious rainfall, so water them by placing in the shower and turn it on lukewarm so water naturally collects in the leaf pockets. As this collected moisture evaporates, it humidifies the air around the plant. This is why bromeliads are perfect for bright bathrooms, where they thrive in the steam of bath or shower.

You can salvage discarded holiday bromeliads in January and February when they’re summarily thrown out after blooms fade. This is the small-budget gardener’s trick for obtaining free plants. Gather them up and nurture with houseplant fertilizer and lots of water, then propagate the pups and spread them around the house for tropical appeal in every room.

As you gather worn-out plants to give them new life, check the Bromeliad Society International for detailed information on varieties and cultivation at http://www.bsi.org. Then when holiday time rolls around again next year, you can regift offspring of the original plants to those who threw them out, without spending a penny.

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