Meet the Bromeliads

By happenstance, my thoughts turn this week to bromeliads. This plant family includes fifty-one genera, almost all of which are native to the tropical Americas. The most familiar member of this family is the pineapple, which certainly has value as an ornamental, but we will focus here on the bromeliads that we can enjoy in our homes or gardens.

There is considerable diversity within the Bromeliad family. Earlier this week, Brian Kemble provided a photographic tour of Puyas, which he calls “Bromeliad Royalty,” for the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society. Kemble is the long-time curator of the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek and a student of, and prolific writer about, succulent plants.

The Puya genus includes about 230 species, the largest of which is Puya raimondii, which can reach 10 feet tall in vegetative growth with a flower spike 33 feet tall. Other Puyas range around more garden-friendly sizes. In Australia, several years ago, I had the opportunity to examine and photograph a grove of the Chilean Puya berteroniana, called the Turquoise Puya. This plant grows up to 10 feet tall, and display “waxy, metallic blooms of the most unearthly emerald-turquoise. “

Blossom of the Turquoise Puya (Puya berteroniana)
Puya berterionana brsnch

I have a young specimen of this plant in my garden, planted with enough space to accommodate its mature size. Once well established, however, it could spread into a cluster of plants that will require stern control.

The Puya is one of the terrestrial Bromeliads, which was the topic of Bromeliad collector Dennis Cathcart’s recent presentation for the San Francisco Cactus & Succulent Society. He focused on the popular Cryptanthus (Earth Star), a native of Brazil. Other terrestrial Bromeliads include prickly Dyckia (no common name) and Hechtia (False Agave).

The Bromeliad family includes several epiphytes, including the popular genus Tillandsia (Airplants), which includes 650 species of evergreen perennial flowering plants native to northern Mexico and southeastern United States. These must qualify as the most easily maintained plants in existence, making them favorites of dorm-dwellers and other occasional gardeners.

A significant species within the Tillandsia genus is Spanish Moss (T. usneoides), which is the smallest Bromeliad. It is native to southeastern United States and other areas, and grows on larger trees in tropical and subtropical climates.

An epiphytic Bromeliad that I enjoy in my garden is one of the 255 species within the Aechmea genus: A. gamosepala (Matchstick Bromeliad). This epiphytic plant is is often grown in a container with some soil. It is easily propagated from offsets that it produces easily. The plant blooms in mid-winter, so my plant is out of season at the time of this writing. The photograph shows a blossom from the San Diego County Fair, where it won (not surprisingly) first place for the best multi-colored bloom.

Blossom of the Matchstick Bromeliad
(Aechmea gamosepala)

The Bromeliad family has a great diversity of form and texture and includes the most unusual and striking blossoms within the universe of ornamental plants. Many of them can be grown without extraordinary effort in the Monterey Bay area. These plants are commonly available in garden centers, but some varieties are offered locally from time to time, and many can be found by searching through the offerings of mail-order suppliers.

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