And the reply is: Bromeliads.
“Which houseplants can adapt to low gentle and don’t require frequent watering, however will flower anyway?”
It’s a query that tropical plant consultants like Angel A. Lara hear repeatedly, notably from those that have put different houseplants in jeopardy by subjecting them to this type of no-frills routine.
Not like many houseplants, bromeliads are likely to have “a straightforward disposition,” mentioned Mr. Lara, the vice chairman for botanical horticulture at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, in Sarasota, Fla. That’s as a result of most of the ones marketed as houseplants are epiphytes.
Mr. Lara speaks from in depth hands-on expertise. Epiphytes from 4 plant households — bromeliads, orchids, Gesneriads and ferns — are the central focus of research at Selby, a famend analysis facility and common customer attraction that’s celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this 12 months.
Most epiphytes, or air crops, don’t sink their roots into soil to soak up moisture and vitamins, Mr. Lara defined. As a substitute, they use their roots to connect themselves to different crops, particularly timber and shrubs, or typically rocks.
Epiphytic bromeliads derive sustenance not from the bottom however from the environment, and from different dwelling organisms. Their specialised design — whether or not it’s a central, vase-like tank fashioned by a rosette of leaves; complicated mobile constructions on the foliage known as trichomes; or each — permits them to collect and preserve water. In addition they use their tanks to gather natural matter like bugs or bits of leaves.
All of this quantities to “survival techniques,” Mr. Lara mentioned.
“They’re doing what desert crops do,” he added, likening it to the spectacular water- and nutrient-storage capabilities of crops like cactuses. “However bromeliads are doing it within the tropics.”
With roughly 3,500 species — and doubtless 100,000 hybrids — bromeliads supply a staggering variety of selections should you’re in search of a houseplant.
Mr. Lara recommends Tropiflora Nursery or Bird Rock Tropicals as mail-order sources. You might end up simply seduced by a hot-pink earth star (Cryptanthus) or the showy sample of venation on the foliage of some large, standout Vriesea.
Most bromeliads have a few issues in frequent: They’re stemless, often with a rosette construction. They usually’re native, virtually solely, to the New World tropics and subtropics. (Just one species hails from West Africa.) However for the final 500 years, for the reason that discovery of the pineapple — a terrestrial species, not an epiphytic one — bromeliads have been moved across the globe.
With the notable exception of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), a Zone 8-hardy epiphytic bromeliad (and an odd one out in look, too), these are usually Zone 10 crops. That makes them perennial backyard candidates solely in locations like parts of Florida, California and Texas.
All over the place else, they’re comfortable open air solely in the summertime — and Mr. Lara recommends bringing them exterior if doable, to allow them to refill on assets earlier than the leaner instances of indoor houseplant season hit.
Starter Vegetation: Newbie Bromeliads
In case you are new to bromeliads, perhaps don’t begin by going too large or too prickly at first, Mr. Lara urged.
Such sensible concerns determine into matching plant to position. For instance, giant bromeliads with rosettes of leaves deep sufficient to type water-holding tanks — just like the spectacular Vriesea gigantea, or V. hieroglyphica with its banded leaf markings — is probably not ideally suited for a busy household room, even when the opposite circumstances are appropriate.
“I’ve youngsters, and I’ve canines,” he mentioned, wincing on the imaginative and prescient of the ample tank’s contents upended onto the carpet.
One other consideration: Many bromeliads have spines on the sides of their leaves or are serrated, “they usually do kind of scratch you up,” he mentioned. “Bromeliads are infamous for being not the friendliest of types.”
Mr. Lara’s top-five checklist begins with gentler ones, just like the pink quill bromeliad (Tillandsia cyanea, now labeled as Wallisia however usually bought by its former identify). With inexperienced, grassy leaves that type a small tank, or water reservoir, it makes a sensible choice for rising naked root, in a slatted hanging basket, or mounted with zip ties onto a chunk of wooden. The aromatic flower scape — which resembles an enormous, flattened pink pine cone — lasts for so long as six months.
Subsequent, he recommends the earth stars, or Cryptanthus. Among the many most colourful and forgiving of all, they’re simply grown in pots. Their wavy leaf margins are serrated, however not bitingly so. Not like his different suggestions, earth stars are semi-terrestrial, usually dwelling on rocks and sand within the wild.
One other that he extremely recommends is the torch bromeliad (Guzmania lingulata), a spineless species. (It’s on the reverse finish of the spectrum from the genus Dyckia, which is attractive however fierce.) The red-flowered torch was the primary decorative bromeliad to catch plant collectors’ consideration, again in 1776, however breeders have since launched cultivars and hybrids with scapes of yellow, white, pink, purple and even inexperienced, all with small water tanks and suited to rising in pots.
His subsequent suggestion: “Every other Tillandsia.” T. harrisii resembles a silvery pineapple prime. Distinctive Tillandsia funckiana appears to be like like what would possibly occur if an enormous caterpillar have been crossed with a soft-needled conifer. Develop both one mounted or in a dangling basket.
Rounding out his checklist is the urn plant (Aechmea fasciata), which has been in cultivation virtually two centuries, so it should be doing one thing proper. Its large pink inflorescence can final half a 12 months. Though the unique species is spiny, that trait has been virtually bred out of a number of the hybrids, Mr. Lara mentioned.
A few his intermediate-level selections: “Probably the most tried and true” of the Vrieseas, he mentioned, the flaming sword (Vriesea splendens, now Lutheria splendens), which is comfortable in low gentle. For brighter spots, attempt colourful Neoregelias, however be ready to offer them adequate area to stretch out sideways over time. “As a result of they’re stoloniferous,” he mentioned, “they go far and wide.”
Together with onto a Christmas tree. Bromeliads are such a signature at Selby that towards the tip of this month, a tree of greater than 20 toes excessive will likely be original out of 750 or so Neoregelias secured to a metallic armature. It has been a vacation custom there for the reason that Nineteen Nineties.
Care and Feeding
Owing to their epiphytic nature, most bromeliads don’t want soil a lot as a stable footing — one thing to seize onto, the best way they might a tree within the forest cover. Those who do get potted up, just like the Cryptanthus, Guzmania or Aechmea, are finest underpotted, or given pots which will look like too small. This may create the look of a mismatch, nevertheless it retains roots more healthy.
“The Bromeliaceae ought to have what we seek advice from as ‘just a little pot and an enormous head,’ as a result of should you’re doing the alternative, you’re going to rot that plant,” Mr. Lara mentioned. Letting crops stand in a saucer of water will do the identical.
He recommends utilizing a potting combine labeled for Phalaenopsis orchids, that are additionally epiphytic. Such blends are sometimes heavy on the bark and should include substances like sponge rock, coarse perlite and charcoal.
If in case you have bromeliads grown in pots, water them as you’ll another potted plant. If a plant’s leaves type a tank — the best way Aechmea, Vriesia, Guzmania and Neoregelia do — add water into it, too.
Cryptanthus, for instance, don’t have such water-holding reservoirs.
“I don’t must replenish this factor,” Mr. Lara mentioned of the earth stars, as a result of their leaves don’t type a tank. “I simply must water the pot, which we’re all used to doing.”
Misting is usually really useful as the easiest way to water bromeliads grown naked root. However with Tillandsias particularly, Mr. Lara prefers dunking them in a bucket of water for an intensive soak. Which may be mandatory solely each few weeks, or as soon as a month within the low-light winter season.
Counting on misting alone, he mentioned, you threat cultivating “zombie Tillandsias” — silvery ghosts that in some way proceed to look good months after their demise. Oops.
Additionally vital: Water Tillandsias within the morning moderately than at evening. “The crops are actively doing work at evening, opening their stomas,” he mentioned. “In the event you dunk them in a bucket of water, you’re just about waterboarding them, and they’re going to drown.”
After dunking a plant, permit it to empty correctly, the wrong way up, on a serviette or towel earlier than returning it to its upright rising place.
With the tank sorts, rinse the central reservoir within the sink or bathe to flush out any water that might in any other case change into stagnant and will rot the plant. “In the event you can dump out that water and add new, that’s ideally suited,” he mentioned.
With both watering technique, as soon as a month, from spring to fall, add balanced liquid fertilizer to the water at half power.
“Within the forest, the crops depend on the bugs dwelling in that huge cup and the leaf matter that’s falling, the pure elements which can be breaking down,” he mentioned. “For us, it’s fertilizer.”
What in all probability startles starting bromeliad growers most, even after offering diligent care, is the inevitable decline of the unique or mom plant after it flowers. Don’t panic: That is a part of the bromeliad life cycle.
Pups — new development often known as ramets — must be growing alongside the unique plant.
“That dying plant is giving all its assets to the brand new ones,” Mr. Lara mentioned.
Gnarly as it might search for a time, don’t rush to bid the outdated plant farewell. Wait till the ramet reaches a 3rd of the mom’s dimension. Then it’s secure to take away the mom, or take away the offset and make a brand new house for it.
“And even higher,” he mentioned, “give it to a pal.”
Margaret Roach is the creator of the web site and podcast A Way to Garden, and a guide of the identical identify.
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