Bromeliads: long-lasting tropical color

February 27, 2003 - 14:05

Wonderfully diverse in color, exotic and long-lasting, bromeliads are an excellent, high-dollar alternative for containers and landscapes.

January is the month of the TPIE (Tropical Plant Industry
Exhibition) conference and trade show in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. This is a major
exposition for tropical foliage and color and a great place to see not only
what 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 was
thinking that many growers and retailers may be looking for crops to help them
establish a reputation for diversity, and that this show is a great place to
start. It is also a great location to escape the Northern winter for a week of
trade shows and nursery tours.

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

I will look more at orchids sometime in the near future, but
for this month I wanted to talk about bromeliads and some of the spectacular,
long-lasting hybrids coming on the market. Especially during the long, cold
months of winter, bromeliads can offer intense color that lasts from six weeks
to three months depending on our nursery conditions and the hybrid selected.
Interiorscapers have known about the advantages of this hardy group of plants
for years, but bromeliads are often overlooked as plants to be used in the
color 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 Bullis
Bromeliads, Princeton, Fla. Bullis supplies finished product nationally and
internationally and breeds many of its own hybrids.

Bromeliad background

A little background on bromeliads: In their native
environment, this group of plants is mostly known as epiphytes, meaning that
while they live in the branches of tropical trees, or cling to the sheer cliff
faces 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 canopy
where the best light and rainfall can be found. While not all bromeliads live
in the trees, they are known for their ability to withstand dry conditions, low
light levels and low fertility. Because they can tolerate these conditions,
they make excellent interior plants and provide incredibly long-lived outdoor
color as well. A word of caution: A lot of people get the idea that bromeliads
are like cacti and prefer to be dry and exposed to high light levels; this is a
common error and one you need to avoid if you are going to be growing or using
these plants in your crop selection. While there are a few bromeliads with the
same requirements as cacti, most of the more colorful types prefer shade,
moisture and warm temperature to look their best and last the longest. Sun
scald on bromeliads will immediately render them unsalable; be conservative and
treat bromeliads to the same light levels you use on your tropical foliage
plant materials.

When ordering pre-finished bromeliads, remember that while
the flower spikes may last up to three months, once the plant or
"vase" that makes up the center of the pot finishes flowering, that
vase will die and "pups," or offshoots, will branch out from the base
of the plant. It may never be the same quality again but can continue to
provide color or foliage for years to come. Because of this growth habit, it is
very important to take good care of that flower spike to maximize the shelf
life of the bromeliads. Another note: Most bromeliads can be induced to flower
with small doses (25-100 ppm) of ethylene, either in gas form or at low
concentrations of liquid sprays. While the homeowner may place a slice of apple
in the vase, commercial growers can purchase packets that release the chemical
slowly to induce even flowering.

Cultivars

Neoregelia. Not all
flowering bromeliads form a flower spike in the center of the plant. The
Neoregelia genus forms a symmetrical vase of foliage, but flowers form in the
center of the vase and do not elongate past the top of the foliage. For this
reason Neoregelia hybrids offer excellent foliage color and are very long-lasting
in the landscape, color bowl or interiorscape. Try mixing three different 5- to
6-inch Neoregelia pots into a wicker basket and you have an instant color bowl
that will last all summer on a shady patio ? and will be a value-added
item as well.

Aechmea. In the
flower-spike-types of bromeliads there are lots of choices to make as well.
Aechmea hybrids have long been a staple of the interiorscape industry. This
genus can handle higher light levels and drier conditions quite well. The old
standard was Aechmea fasciata with silver foliage and pink-bracted spikes with
red and royal blue flowers, but there are now a lot of other colors and forms
to choose from. 'Patricia' has green foliage with purple tones and bright pink
and yellow bracts. Aechmea 'Flamingo' was also striking with silver foliage,
pink- to lavender-toned bracts and yellow flowers. The real show-stopper at
TPIE, however, was Aechmea 'Blue Tango', with brilliant blue and red-cerise
spikes on plants just shy of three feet tall, with green, thornless foliage.
Not all Aechmea hybrids have been "declawed," or bred to have
thornless leaves, so ask when purchasing plants. I have a family video of my
son learning to walk and stumbling into a display of thorned bromeliads, and
well? let's just say it ends badly and move on. Thornless is a plus in
many situations, so consider what you need when ordering.

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

Ananas. Ananas is
the genus we get the edible pineapple from. Some of the old-fashioned forms are
wickedly 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 first
is the thornless Ananas comosus 'albo-marginatus' from Bullis Bromeliads, a
striking, variegated foliage form with pink fruit. A really sturdy plant with
long-lasting interest, the fruit that form on ornamental pineapples may last a
year or more.

That long-lasting quality is what brings us to the second
Ananas I wanted to talk about. Ananas lucidus was on display at ForemostCo's
booth 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 liner
plantlets and as cut flowers. The spike with fruit is also very long-lasting in
a vase and adds a tropical look to larger arrangements.

Tillandsia. The
Tilland-sia genus is known as "air plants," and most have
greenish-gray foliage and are less-striking, but there are some very sculpted-looking
forms available. Flowers are not
usually as significant as some of the more colorful genera, but for understated
form and a Mediterranean effect, look into this group. Tillandsia xerographica
is a great example, but there are many more that are also long-lasting and
attractive.

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

An easy, high-value plant

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

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

About The Author

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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