Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Horticulture News
Bromeliads - Appealing "Air Plants"
Bromeliads are one of the more spectacular exotic tropical plants that grow in our area. They come in a wide variety of colors and shapes. The leaves may be completely symmetrical or uniquely twisted and curled into bizarre shapes. The foliage ranges in color from various shades of solid green to brightly spotted or banded patterns. The flowers often boast dazzling color combinations and fantastic forms.
There are more than 2500 species of bromeliads. They are all native to the Americas. These plants have adapted themselves to a wide range of habitats and environments. Over half of the bromeliad species are epiphytes, plants that live on trees or rocks without the benefit of soil. The balance are terrestrials that grow in the ground. Bromeliads are not parasites; they do not harm the host tree but merely use it as platform to gain access light and gain freedom from competition by other plants. The root systems of most epiphytic bromeliads are quite small and serves only to anchor the plants to their host. The leaves have been modified to fulfill the water and nutrient absorbing functions normally performed by the roots. This enables bromeliads to seemingly extract their requirements for food and water from thin air, earning them the common nickname of "air plant."
A number of native bromeliads festoon the branches of the magnificent oaks, graceful pines, and gnarled cypress around south-west Florida. These aerial gardens are most spectacular on the old live oak trees in and around LaBelle and other old towns in the center of the state. Careful observation of these elevated plant communities will reveal several species living together in harmony with the unique resurrection fern. These include the grayish green, strap leaved Quill-leaf, the reddish grass like tufts of the Wild Pine, and the ubiquitous Spanish Moss. Some other common native bromeliads include the round Ball Moss that will even grow on phone lines, and the miniature air plant or Tillandsia which is frequently found growing on cypress trees.
Cultivated bromeliads are easy to grow. They can survive neglect and thrive with a minimum of attention. Their unusual forms and coloration are an attractive addition which provides a tropical air to an outdoor garden. The five most popular types of bromeliads found in this area are Tillandsia, Guzmania, Vriesia, Neoregelia, and Aechmea. Each type is represented by dozens of different varieties.
Terrestrial bromeliads prefer a well drained soil with good organic matter content. Plant them in areas where water does not pool during the rainy season as this will cause the plants to rot. Do not plant bromeliads too deeply; the bottom leaves should be at or above the level of the soil. Staking may be required until plants become established. Most prefer mixed shade under trees, although some can tolerate full sun. Although bromeliads can tolerate neglect, they will perform much better with some attention. Weekly irrigation is recommended during the dry season. A complete liquid fertilizer can be used to fertilize bromeliads. It is important to remember to apply liquid fertilizers at one quarter the recommended dosage to avoid burning the plants. Fertilizer should not be applied from November to February, to avoid producing tender growth which may be damaged by cooler weather.
Epiphytic bromeliads growing on the bark or nestled in the branches of a tree add a tropical look to a landscape. Bromeliads may be attached to tree by wrapping the roots in a bit of moist sphagnum moss and securing the plant to the tree with a piece of panty hose. The plant should be kept moist until it sends out roots and attaches itself firmly to the tree. Try to select natural crevices or the crotch at the attachment of major branches for the placement of bromeliads. Avoid full sun light and place plants on the north or east side of trees for best results.
Once a bromeliad blossoms, the plant slowly dies but produces shoots or pups at it's base. It is not necessary to remove these shoots unless a clump of bromeliads becomes overcrowded. The pups can also be used to propagate new bromeliad plants. When the pups have reached one third the size of the mother plant they can be separated and remove using a sharp knife or shears. These can then be planted in the ground or in a tree depending on the type of bromeliad. They should be staked or tied until they become firmly rooted.
Bromeliads are generally pest free. They are occasionally attacked by scale or mealy bugs. These can be controlled with insecticidal soaps or Cygon mixed at one quarter strength. Do not use oil sprays on bromeliads.
Try these bright exotic tropicals for a spectacular, low maintenance, visually appealing addition to your garden. Good luck and good gardening.
Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service. Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975, e-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598. You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle. Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.
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