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Colorful Bromeliads for No-Fuss Gardening

March 03, 2001|U.C. MASTER GARDENERS

Question: I'd like to grow something that's interesting, yet takes minimal care. Any suggestions?

B.D., Irvine

Answer: Bromeliads are a good choice. These colorful plants are easy to care for and provide structural interest. They are widely used in commercial settings such as resorts, malls and hotels where they retain a pristine, colorful appearance for months with little maintenance.

There are 3,500 types of bromeliads. The most well-known is the pineapple. Other types don't fruit but generally have flowering stalks that rise 12 to 20 inches from the middle of a rosette of leaves that forms a cup for moisture.

Leaves can be plain green, banded, striped, streaked or mottled. One such widely used bromeliad is Aechmea fasciata. This has gray-green leaves with silvery white markings and a distinctive, erect, pink flower bract that has small, pale-blue flowers.

Spanish moss is another bromeliad, as are many epiphytic (air) plants such as tillandsias.

Native to tropical and subtropical regions, bromeliads occur in many forms in all climates from deserts to rain forests to mountain ranges. They grow from 1 inch to 35 feet tall in the jungle.

Bromeliads were introduced to Spain in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, who discovered cultivated pineapples in the West Indies. Eventually pineapples and other bromeliads became houseplants across Europe. By the 1920s, they were also popular in the U.S.

All mature bromeliads bloom, taking from one year to up to a dozen years or more, depending on the species. Most bromeliads bloom only once, and that bloom lasts up to 16 weeks. The mother plant dies within one to two years, but first it produces from one to five pups at the edge of the pot. These pups will grow and eventually they also will flower.

For success growing bromeliads, keep the following tips in mind:

* Provide filtered light. Although they often grow in full sun in tropical climates, our direct sun is usually too intense. In general, bromeliads with stiff, stout foliage need more light, while bromeliads with soft, green leaves need more shade. Pineapples need good light.

* Bromeliads will grow in virtually any soil that has excellent drainage, but they do best in containers filled with a loose, fast-draining, highly organic growing mix. Use only clay pots with drainage holes, and always firmly support the plants. A potting mix that drains well contains equal amounts of orchid bark, peat moss and perlite ( 1/8 to 1/4 inch in diameter).

* Many bromeliads grow in a rosette, which forms a cup. When watering, fill the cup. It is also advisable to flush the cup occasionally. How often to water will depend on the type of bromeliad. For those grown in containers it is generally best to let the soil surface dry between watering.

* Some bromeliads, like the urn plant, fare well in dry conditions, but others, such as many tillandsias and Spanish moss, need additional humidity to thrive. Regular spraying with water will help increase the humidity.

* Avoid overfertilizing. Too much nitrogen for a bromeliad can inhibit flower growth. For most bromeliads, feed once in spring, twice in summer and once in fall using half-strength 20-20-20 or 20-10-20 fertilizer. Fish emulsion once a month is a good additive. An exception to this plan is the Neoregelia genus, which requires a low-nitrogen, high-phosphorus fertilizer.

* Many bromeliads will bloom on new pups that have grown on the outside of the pot even if you don't repot them. Repotting is a good idea, however, because it offers an opportunity to create more plants and the flowers will be much showier when given additional room for growth.

Before transplanting a pup, let it grow until it reaches a third to half the size of the mother plant and has several leaves. To separate the pup from the mother, remove the entire plant from the pot, expose the side where the pup is formed and gently pull or cut off the pup.

Let the pup sit for at least a day in the shade before you pot it up. At maturity, each pup will produce one to five offspring.

Bromeliads are available at most nurseries and some supermarkets nearly all year, but the selection is better during spring and summer.

For more information about care and culture, contact the Bromeliad Society International at or

The Saddleback Valley Bromeliad Society meets the first Thursday of every month in Mission Viejo. Information: Cristy at (949) 837-3722.

--Written by University of California Master Gardener Pat Whatley of Laguna Hills.

Have a problem in your yard? University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Master Gardeners are here to help. These trained and certified horticultural volunteers are dedicated to extending research-based, scientifically accurate information to the public about home horticulture and pest management. They are involved with a variety of outreach programs, including the UCCE Master Garden hotline, which provides answers to specific questions. You can reach the hotline at (714) 708-1646 or send e-mail to Calls and e-mail are checked daily and are generally answered within three days. Please include your name and city of residence.

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