A bromeliad solution

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Billbergia pyramidalis

One's attitude to bromeliads is pretty revealing about one's particular garden style. I know that 20 years ago, in my 'cottage garden' era, I regarded them with complete horror, and used to discreetly 'dispose' of those my mother gave me from her garden - which held many different types grown from 'pups' her friends had given her.

Massed bromeliads in the garden of Sandra Wilson in Sydney

But somewhere along the line, I changed my mind about them and am now a complete devotee of all bromeliads (the Bromeliaceae family of plants). My garden has now evolved to a semitropical style and the bromeliads fit in very easily to the shaded, rainforesty areas of it as well as other sheltered nooks. As many bromeliads want to grow in shade, even dry shade, they are a wonderful, low-maintenance, pest-free groundcover solution to the most inhospitable of conditions, such as under large trees or even in shallow soil on top of a rock shelf. As many are epiphytic in nature, you can even grow them in the forks of trees or on the sides of a tall tree fern; they can also grow well in pots and I have seen 'living walls' made of bromeliads tied on to a wire screen.

Bromeliads come from Central and South America (particularly Brazil) and many are perfectly suited to the Sydney climate. In general, they have a vase-shaped form, with a central well that captures water, organic debris and insects. The leaves function to provide food and water, so the roots are simply to stop the plant from falling over! The pineapple plant is one a type of bromeliad (Ananas comosus).

Tillandsia usneoides in the garden of my sister Holly in Sydney

There are just so many different sorts of them - more than 3000 species in 56 genera - and there is such variety of foliage, flower and form. They range from the imposing - up to 1m tall - to the dainty: the silvery-grey Spanish moss we see festooned from trees is a type of bromeliad (Tillandsia usneoides). Leaves can be plain green, or patterned with spots, stripes, horizontal bands or splashes of many colours. Some have silvery leaves, others can have gold, purple, red or almost black foliage. Those with coloured leaves generally need a bit more filtered light than those with plain green foliage do. Some leaves are broad and dramatic, whereas others are thin and spidery. Different types massed together make an effective quilt of colour and form.

Flowers also have a range of looks: chunky brushes, upright spikes or strange feathers; some are pendulous with tiny tubular flowers held in showy bracts. Flowering time varies, but many bloom in winter and early spring, whilst others are coming into bloom now. Some bloom whenever their rosette is mature, which can be at any time of the year. Generally, it is the bract of the flower that is the main part of the inflorescence.

Billbergia pyramidalis

One of the most common sorts is Billbergia pyramidalis, flowering now with a bright red, upright thick bloom. It is one of the more short-lived bromeliad flowers, but provides a welcome splash of colour in a shaded area. I grow mine as an under-planting to scarlet Salvia miniata, a shade-tolerant Salvia; the so-called red justicia (Odontonema strictum); red cane Begonia and a red-stemmed rhizomatous Begonia. I have an attractive bromeliad called Neoregelia carolinae in this area that has a beautiful red centre to its vases, which echoes the red flowers in this garden bed. The Neoregelia do not generally have interesting flowers: the tiny blooms are nestled within the vases, as generally the foliage - often with a contrasting coloured centre to the leaf rosette at the time of flowering - is the star attraction for this genus.

Aechmea fasciata does have fabulous flowers, which are blooming now - I have even seen pots of it for sale at fancy prices at the florist shop. It has a big pink tousled bloom, which can last for many months. It also has lovely silvery leaves with interesting darker bands. It would be good as an under-planting to Justicia carnea, as there is something similar about the shape of the flowers.

I have some other bromeliads with striking silvery foliage; these are some sort of Billbergia - possibly B. vittata - which was one of my mother's forms from a special friend. Like most bromeliads, it has clumped up prodigiously in my garden over the years. It is pleasing grown under a silver birch tree. It has a pretty, pendulous flower sporadically during the year - often in late summer but at other times as well.

Vriesea comprise a very diverse genus: some species have huge rosettes, often with very beautiful patterning on the leaves, such as Vriesea hieroglyphica. Smaller types, of which there are many hybrid forms, have plain green leaves with extremely long-lasting, waxy blooms, that resemble thick feathers, in colours of yellow, orange and reds, so that an eye-catching display can be creating by mass-planting different ones. Another type with striking blooms is Guzmania, which has an elongated, tufted bloom that lasts a long time and comes in various colours. I have found them slightly less easy to grow than the rest of the bromeliads: some do need more tropical conditions than we can provide.

I have only scratched the surface of this fascinating subject; suffice to say that I do enjoy growing them and I salute them as providing a solution to often hopeless growing situations. To see a huge array of bromeliads on display and for sale, visit the autumn show of the Bromeliad Society of NSW on 24 and 25 April: see their website for details.