Bromeliads: long-lasting tropical color By Rick Schoellhorn

January is the month of the TPIE (Tropical Plant IndustryExhibition) conference and trade show in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. This is a majorexposition for tropical foliage and color and a great place to see not onlywhat is being produced in the South but also tropical product from Europe,Latin America and the Caribbean. As I attended the show this year, I wasthinking that many growers and retailers may be looking for crops to help themestablish a reputation for diversity, and that this show is a great place tostart. It is also a great location to escape the Northern winter for a week oftrade shows and nursery tours.

With the continuing popularity of the tropical look ingardening there is a lot of great material to look at, and though most of thetropical materials can be ordered in as liners and finished locally, some ofthe slower-growing crops may require Northern nurseries to buy in pre-finishedor finished material to expand their offerings of tropical plant material. Twoof the most popular plants that fit this type of crop include orchids andbromeliads. The boom in orchids as flowering potted plants (now listed as thenumber-two flowering potted plant, just behind poinsettias) and the growingdiversity of bromeliad hybrids on the market make it much easier to findreliable sources for some really exotic color.

I will look more at orchids sometime in the near future, butfor this month I wanted to talk about bromeliads and some of the spectacular,long-lasting hybrids coming on the market. Especially during the long, coldmonths of winter, bromeliads can offer intense color that lasts from six weeksto three months depending on our nursery conditions and the hybrid selected.Interiorscapers have known about the advantages of this hardy group of plantsfor years, but bromeliads are often overlooked as plants to be used in thecolor market and even have a place in the summer shade color market nationwide.The majority of the pictures this month came from the booth of BullisBromeliads, Princeton, Fla. Bullis supplies finished product nationally andinternationally and breeds many of its own hybrids.

Bromeliad background

A little background on bromeliads: In their nativeenvironment, this group of plants is mostly known as epiphytes, meaning thatwhile they live in the branches of tropical trees, or cling to the sheer clifffaces of their home countries, they do not harm the trees they exist on.Instead, they use the trees for support to hold the plants above the canopywhere the best light and rainfall can be found. While not all bromeliads livein the trees, they are known for their ability to withstand dry conditions, lowlight levels and low fertility. Because they can tolerate these conditions,they make excellent interior plants and provide incredibly long-lived outdoorcolor as well. A word of caution: A lot of people get the idea that bromeliadsare like cacti and prefer to be dry and exposed to high light levels; this is acommon error and one you need to avoid if you are going to be growing or usingthese plants in your crop selection. While there are a few bromeliads with thesame requirements as cacti, most of the more colorful types prefer shade,moisture and warm temperature to look their best and last the longest. Sunscald on bromeliads will immediately render them unsalable; be conservative andtreat bromeliads to the same light levels you use on your tropical foliageplant materials.

When ordering pre-finished bromeliads, remember that whilethe flower spikes may last up to three months, once the plant or”vase” that makes up the center of the pot finishes flowering, thatvase will die and “pups,” or offshoots, will branch out from the baseof the plant. It may never be the same quality again but can continue toprovide color or foliage for years to come. Because of this growth habit, it isvery important to take good care of that flower spike to maximize the shelflife of the bromeliads. Another note: Most bromeliads can be induced to flowerwith small doses (25-100 ppm) of ethylene, either in gas form or at lowconcentrations of liquid sprays. While the homeowner may place a slice of applein the vase, commercial growers can purchase packets that release the chemicalslowly to induce even flowering.

Cultivars

Neoregelia. Not allflowering bromeliads form a flower spike in the center of the plant. TheNeoregelia genus forms a symmetrical vase of foliage, but flowers form in thecenter of the vase and do not elongate past the top of the foliage. For thisreason Neoregelia hybrids offer excellent foliage color and are very long-lastingin the landscape, color bowl or interiorscape. Try mixing three different 5- to6-inch Neoregelia pots into a wicker basket and you have an instant color bowlthat will last all summer on a shady patio ? and will be a value-addeditem as well.

Aechmea. In theflower-spike-types of bromeliads there are lots of choices to make as well.Aechmea hybrids have long been a staple of the interiorscape industry. Thisgenus can handle higher light levels and drier conditions quite well. The oldstandard was Aechmea fasciata with silver foliage and pink-bracted spikes withred and royal blue flowers, but there are now a lot of other colors and formsto choose from. ‘Patricia’ has green foliage with purple tones and bright pinkand yellow bracts. Aechmea ‘Flamingo’ was also striking with silver foliage,pink- to lavender-toned bracts and yellow flowers. The real show-stopper atTPIE, however, was Aechmea ‘Blue Tango’, with brilliant blue and red-cerisespikes on plants just shy of three feet tall, with green, thornless foliage.Not all Aechmea hybrids have been “declawed,” or bred to havethornless leaves, so ask when purchasing plants. I have a family video of myson learning to walk and stumbling into a display of thorned bromeliads, andwell? let’s just say it ends badly and move on. Thornless is a plus inmany situations, so consider what you need when ordering.

Guzmania. TheGuzmania genus has thornless foliage in green to purple/burgundy tones andbrilliantly colored bracts of red, orange, yellow and bi-colors on the spikes.These hybrids easily last eight weeks in flower and longer under the rightconditions. Avoid chilling to keep plants looking their best. There are quite afew hybrids, so when ordering, look for mature size and bract color to get whatyou are looking for.

Ananas. Ananas isthe genus we get the edible pineapple from. Some of the old-fashioned forms arewickedly thorned, so do be careful to get thornless varieties where possible.There are two really nice options here that I saw in Fort Lauderdale. The firstis the thornless Ananas comosus ‘albo-marginatus’ from Bullis Bromeliads, astriking, variegated foliage form with pink fruit. A really sturdy plant withlong-lasting interest, the fruit that form on ornamental pineapples may last ayear or more.

That long-lasting quality is what brings us to the secondAnanas I wanted to talk about. Ananas lucidus was on display at ForemostCo’sbooth and the main production of this crop is with 11/2-inch pots,pre-initiated so the plant quickly forms a miniature spike complete with fruit!There are a few different suppliers, but plants are sold both as linerplantlets and as cut flowers. The spike with fruit is also very long-lasting ina vase and adds a tropical look to larger arrangements.

Tillandsia. TheTilland-sia genus is known as “air plants,” and most havegreenish-gray foliage and are less-striking, but there are some very sculpted-lookingforms available. Flowers are notusually as significant as some of the more colorful genera, but for understatedform and a Mediterranean effect, look into this group. Tillandsia xerographicais a great example, but there are many more that are also long-lasting andattractive.

Specimen forms. Thegiant vases of Alcantarea imperialis and other specimen forms of bromeliads canbe signature items for any retail outlet or landscape. Many of the larger formscan be up to four feet in diameter, with multi-hued foliage and spikes ofcolorful flowers as well.

An easy, high-value plant

This is only an introduction to the group of plants known asbromeliads, and as such, barely scratches the surface of what is available? check some of the sources listed in the sidebar to the right andexplore a bit. At the university we are looking at landscape uses of these wonderfulplants and have found quite a few (Mostly Billbergia and Neoregelia hybrids)that are hardy in temperatures as low as 19¡ F, tolerate dry shade andrequire minimal irrigation. So Southern growers may want to look at some of thehardier types for potential landscape use. Either way, throughout the UnitedStates, the potential for bromeliads as high-dollar bedding plants is pretty much untapped.

With increasing tissue culture production, improvements inshipping and lower prices than in the past, bromeliads are definitely more ofan option and a great way to set your production apart from less-specializedoperations. The plants are extremely colorful and long-lasting, and as long astemperatures and light levels are kept within reasonable set points, they arepretty much idiot-proof when you order pre-finished materials.

Rick Schoellhorn

Rick Schoellhorn is associate professor of floriculture at the University of Florida. He can be reached by phone at (352) 392-1831 or E-mail at rksch@ifas.ufl.edu.



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