Discover bromeliads: these easy-care jungle exotics are easy-going and unusual, bringing a touch of refreshing, bold color to your home.
Bromeliads are popular houseplants and office plants as they are easy to care for and relatively low-maintenance, and they feel at home in our heated indoor spaces. The bromeliad plant family primarily comes from South America and contains around 60 genera and over 3,000 different species. The best-known member is the pineapple (Ananas comosus).
Appearance and Growth
Bromeliads have a very special look with their quirky leaves and flowers, differentiating them from other decorative plants. These herbaceous evergreens primarily consist of a leaf rosette with often colored bracts emerging from the center, attracting insects and hummingbirds to the flower. You can often find bromeliads stuck to stones or pieces of wood in stores. This doesn’t damage the plant, as bromeliads are epiphytes.
In their natural environment, they can be found high up on trees, rocks, cacti or masts, just like orchids. Only a few species grow on the ground. Epiphytes only require planting substrate to hold onto. As epiphytes, bromeliads don’t have roots, rather moisture-absorbing hairs or thrichomes on their leaves. They use these to absorb nutrients and moisture directly from the air. The scant hair on some specimens offers protection from evaporation and sunburn. Some bromeliads form funnels with their leaves to collect rainwater.
What at first glance looks like a flower on a bromeliad is actually a collection of colorful, long-lasting spathaceous bracts. The actual flowers of a bromeliad houseplant are small and mostly fall off in just a few days. Sadly, some species’ leaf rosettes also die after this energy-consuming task. The best-known species that flowers only once is the queen of the Andes (Puya raimondii), native to Peru and Chile. It only blooms once in half a century, with one gigantic flower over 33 feet high. After nine months of flowering, the flower dies - but not before taking care of the next generation: multiple new plants, or “pups”, grow at the feet of many bromeliad species’ leaf rosettes. In the wild, bromeliad seeds or berries are transported by the wind and animals. Bromeliad seeds have small barbs that they use to grab hold of surfaces, such as tree leaf axils, where they then grow.
Light and Temperature
Bromeliads naturally settle in very dry, moist and bright habitats. They grow in deserts, on mountains up to 13123 feet and in tropical rainforests, so are extremely resilient. But only a few species are available as houseplants in temperate climates - and have clear requirements for planting locations. Well-known members like the silver vase or the guzmania value our warm indoor temperatures all year round. You should offer them a bright position in a window, as lots of light encourages the formation of flowers as well as typical leaf colors. Most decorative bromeliads only like direct sun in the morning or in winter - and even then, they don’t enjoy full heat. From June to September, these exotic plants may feel at home outdoors in a garden, depending on your zone. But you must bring these plants back indoors as soon as nighttime temperatures fall below 59 degrees Fahrenheit!
Bromeliads prefer a sunny, humid position and a cozy temperature above 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep bromelaid soil moderately moist at all times so that the root ball never dries out. In summer, the bromeliad’s leaf funnels should always be filled with water. In winter, bromeliads need very little water. Unlike in summer, the leaf funnels should only be filled very sparingly. Empty what’s left over every four weeks, and refresh the water. Water should be room temperature and soft, as lime will leave unsightly marks on the leaf rosettes! Rainwater is best for bromeliads.
During growth phases, you can add a little liquid fertilizer to the plant’s water - a special bromeliad fertilizer would be ideal. There’s no need to feed during winter dormancy. Bromeliads kept on stone rather than substrate do not need watering. A spray from a spray bottle each morning is enough. You can regularly spray bromeliads with low-lime water all year round, as most bromeliad species like high humidity.
Bromeliads are repotted once the roots (for all species growing in soil) completely fill the plant pot or generally once the plant has become too large. Choose a pot in the next size up, ideally one that is in a complementary color and that won’t tip over. Bromeliads that grow in soil are best grown in lime-free, permeable bromeliad soil, where they will quickly root. Epiphytic bromeliads are planted in coarse, permeable substrate made up of tree bark and sphagum, similar to orchids. The seedling is gently encased in covered wire and stuck into the substrate. As soon as the plant can hold itself up, the wire is removed.
The easiest way to propagate bromeliads is by layering. The pups that grow independently from well-maintained houseplants over time form the next generation of bromeliads. Once the pups are around half the size of the parent plant, remove them and place them in their own pots. You just need a little patience: it will be two to three years until you see new flowers. Tip: if you want to encourage flowering, place small pieces of apple in the leaf funnels and cover the plant with a clear plastic bag. The ethylene released from the apple will encourage flowering.
Diseases and Pests
A frequent phenomenon in bromeliads is brown leaf tips. This is generally caused by too much heat or dry air. Moving the plant should help. Brown leaf tips or edges can be carefully cut away. If it fails to flower entirely, the bromeliad is probably not getting enough light. Fungal disease (Colletotrichum crassipes) leads to leaf blight and young bromeliads dying. Sadly, all epiphytic species are real aphid magnets. To prevent your other houseplants falling foul to aphids, mealybugs, scale insects and root aphids, bromeliads should always be kept slightly separate. If the plant is dry, spider mites and dark-winged fungus gnats may also settle on it. But don’t reach straight for the spray, as these exotic plants often react just as sensitively to chemical means as the pest you’re trying to tackle.
Popular bromeliads for indoors
Guzmanias (top photo) are among the best-known members of this plant family. They spread joy with sunshine yellow, pink, orange or bright red spathaceous bracts. The iridescent bracts of air plants like the blue-flowered torch look like something from outer space. These tropical, often epiphytic, plants take moisture from the air using their pointed, raw leaves, and enjoy daily misting. In neoregelias, the flowers are not the primary concern. Its leaves are more colorful than many flowers, made even more intense thanks to their natural glossy sheen and broad growth.
New varieties of red chestnut (Vriesea) bring new pops of color to the range. It was named after Dutch botanist de Vriese. The glossy, sword-shaped inflorescences, which may grow individually or in groups depending on the variety, are characteristic. Tip: there are also some plants with patterned leaves. The Queen’s-tears (Billbergia nutans) bears tiny flowers, creating an enchanting play of color. Aechmea makes a strong impression with its stocky leaf rosette. Up to 12 inches long, the scape with the colorful spathaceous bracts lasts for months, while the small blue flowers fall off quickly. Sporting colorful foliage, pineapple varieties “Variegatus” or “Aureovariegatus” (Ananas comosus) are simply decorative varieties of the delicious tropical fruit.