Get It Growing: Bromeliads Make Great Houseplants

Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A.  |  3/31/2007 12:10:06 AM

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Get It Growing News For 04/20/07

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Who knows what Spanish moss and pineapples have in common? Believe it or not, they actually are related and belong to the same family of plants – the Bromeliad family.

Bromeliads are a beautiful family of tropical plants, many of which posses colorful foliage, beautiful flowers or both. With their variety of shapes and colors, as well as their ease of culture, once you have one bromeliad you are likely to want more. But even one or two plants will make an excellent addition to your potted plant collection.

Very undemanding and easy to grow, their main requirements are sufficient light, proper watering and good air circulation. Indoors, bromeliads thrive in an east, west or south window that receives plenty of light. Outside, these plants generally prefer a semi-shaded location that receives morning sun but shade from the intense light of midday and afternoon. Those with plain green leaves often require the most shade, and those with silvery or gray foliage generally will tolerate the most sun.

Although it is excellent to summer your bromeliads outside when temperatures are warm, they must be brought inside and protected during freezing weather.

Most bromeliads are grown in pots of well-drained potting mix. For the most part, you won’t have to repot a newly purchased blooming bromeliad into a larger container. The container you buy it in generally will be big enough.

If you purchase a young plant that still has a lot of growing to do, however, you will need to repot it into a larger container as it outgrows the one it’s in. When you do, use a light potting soil with some extra perlite added or make your own with equal parts of sphagnum peat moss, medium-grade horticultural perlite and fine fir bark.

Because most bromeliads have rather limited root systems, they generally are grown in pots that are somewhat small for the size of the plant. Clay or plastic pots are equally satisfactory as long as they have drainage holes – although clay pots are more stable due to their weight and may be better for plants that tend to be top heavy.

The potting mix should not be kept constantly wet, since bromeliads do best when allowed to dry slightly between waterings. Many species of bromeliads are able to hold considerable reserves of water in the vase-like center of the plant. This usually should be kept full of water, because the leaves themselves can absorb water.

Although we typically grow bromeliads in containers for our convenience, in nature these plants characteristically are epiphytes – plants that grow upon other plants (generally trees) but are not parasites. The water-holding, vase-like shape of many bromeliads is an adaptation to their tree-dwelling nature. Without soil to retain moisture, you can see how the reserved water held by the leaves would help the plant survive between rains.

Spanish moss, our native epiphytic bromeliad, does not produce a cup but also absorbs all of the water and nutrients it needs through its leaves. The leaves are covered by gray scales (which give this plant its characteristic color) that trap water against the leaves until it can be absorbed. I’m often asked if Spanish moss growing in a tree will somehow injure the tree. Spanish moss makes all of its own food and derives the water and minerals it needs from rain, so it typically is harmless to the tree it is growing on.

Because of their natural ability to grow on trees, you may purchase bromeliads mounted on a piece of driftwood or other material. These plants are a little more trouble to maintain than potted bromeliads and require more frequent watering – which generally is best done at the sink if the plants are being grown indoors. Keep gray-leaved bromeliads well misted and the cups of others filled with water. They are worth the extra effort as mounted bromeliads are strikingly beautiful.

Bromeliads that produce attractive flowers are often purchased in bloom. The flower spikes are exotic and beautiful and usually stay attractive for an extended period of time. Some genera, such as Neoregelia, do not produce especially showy flowers, but the foliage in the center of the plant turns a brilliant color when it blooms. Indeed, for most bromeliads it is not the flowers that provide the primary show but the colorful bracts or modified leaves that accompany the flowers that add much to the display.

It is important to know that after blooming a bromeliad plant will never grow or bloom again. They go into a gradual decline and eventually die. Before they do, however, they produce one to several offshoots from their base called "pups."

These young plants can be separated from the original plant when they are about one-third its size. They usually can simply be pulled off or cut off with a knife at the point where the pup is attached to the mother plant.

Pot the pup in a small container with the appropriate mix and provide it with somewhat less light while it forms a root system. Then move it into the bright light recommended for these plants. As the young plant grows, repot it into larger containers until it is in about the same size pot in which you bought the original plant. Pups will, with good care, generally bloom about two years after being separated from the original plant.

Get It Growing is a weekly feature on home lawn and garden topics prepared by experts in the LSU AgCenter. For more information on such topics, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office or visit our Web site at www.lsuagcenter.com. A wide range of publications and a variety of other resources are available.

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Contact: Dan Gill at (225) 578-2222 or dgill@agcenter.lsu.edu
Editor: Tom Merrill at (225) 578-2263 or tmerrill@agcenter.lsu.edu

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