Bromeliad Culture

Growing Bromeliads in Adelaide, South Australia

Culture Information courtesy
Bromeliad Society of South Australia

This is based on the original Culture Leaflet printed by the BSI but changed greatly because of local Aussie conditions and plant availability. It is in booklet form and is handed out to New Members or sold to interested parties.

Bromeliads belong to a specific plant family Bromeliaceae, which encompasses over 2000 species plus thousands of hybrids. With one exception all are native to the Americas. The pineapple is the most familiar bromeliad. In nature many bromeliads grow on trees as epiphytes. Their roots are used mainly for support. They are not parasites. Some bromeliads grow on trees or in the ground. Others grow on rocks and cliff faces. They are remarkably versatile, and form one of the most adaptable plant families in the world. They have a tremendous will to survive, and can offer infinite variety, challenge, exciting plant forms and colour combinations.

Bromeliads are divided into groups called genera. The majority of the plants in each genus (singular of genera) have the same cultural requirements. There are exceptions, of course. Different genera require varying amounts of light, water and humidity. In cultivation, the most commonly found genera are: Aechmea, Billbergia, Cryptanthus, Dyckia, Neoregelia, Nidularium, Tillandsia and Vriesea.

Potting

For ease of watering in the house, most bromeliads can be potted, as opposed to mounted on wood or other material. However, most grey leaved tillandsias will not do well potted. Bromeliads will grow in almost any medium that drains well, does not pack down, provides stability while the rooting system develops, and has a slightly acid to neutral pH. A ready-mix, all-purpose potting soil can be used, provided perlite, and/or very coarse river sand, is added to the mix. Tree fern fibre, small sized gravel, pine or fir bark are all good additives, if they are available. The important consideration is that the potting mix must drain rapidly.

Cryptanthus and Dyckias grow well in African Violet soil. Many African Violet growers find Cryptanthus good companion plants under fluorescent lights. Dyckias do well in cactus soil. Orchid mix is also satisfactory, although we believe that mixing this 50/50 with general purpose potting soil gives a more water retentive yet open mix.

A few good potting rules to follow are:

  1. Don't pot a bromeliad too deeply.
  2. Don't use a pot that is too large. The danger of over watering increases. Usually a four, five or six inch pot is sufficient for a full grown plant.
  3. Don't allow the plant to rock back and forth, or wiggle. This damages the tender, developing roots.. Stake the plant, if necessary, until the roots are well developed.
  4. Use a fast-draining potting mix. The water should run right through the mix. Then empty the saucer.
  5. Use a pot with drainage holes in the bottom or sides.

Watering

The roots of most potted bromeliads like to be moist, but never soggy. Keep the central cup, if there is one, filled with fresh water. Don't allow the water to get old or stagnant, or you will have a smelly plant. The water should be at room temperature, and should be poured into the centre of the plant, the cup, and allowed to run through the leaves into the soil, so that the roots are moistened. One should do this at least once a week to flush out the cup. Mist the plant every few days if the humidity is 50-60%, or daily, if the weather is dry.

Softer leaved plants require more water and humidity than stiff leaved ones. Most Vrieseas and Nidulariums fall into this category. Mounted plants need frequent misting and do well with a weekly dousing in the sink or tub.

For most times of the year tap water can be used but remember that as summer wears on, tap water becomes saltier. So water heavily and flush out what water may be remaining in the centre of your plant. If you have access to rain water then your problems become less.

If your plants are outside in the winter remember to empty out most of the water if frost is forecast. Covering the plants with newspaper will also help protect them

Light

Bright, diffused light is needed by most bromeliads. Hard, spiny, thick leaved, as well as those with grey-green, grey, or silvery leaves, can take bright light for extended periods of time. Soft, thin leaved plants do well in a spot with lowered light intensity, but no bromeliad likes a dark environment.

Nidulariums require the least amount of light and Neoregelias the most. The intense translucent red seen in many Neoregelias cannot be held, if grown indoors The other genera mentioned fall somewhere in between these two light requirements.

Symptoms of too little light are dark green, often soft, drooping leaves that are longer than normal and of poor colour. Symptoms of too much light are yellowed leaves, markings that are faded and bleached out, a leathery, stressed look to the foliage, and in extreme cases sunburn spots and holes.

In Adelaide we recommend 50-70% shadecloth depending on the type of plant and position in your garden. If grown in a more shady area suitable for ferns then Bromeliads too will become green. It is best to experiment on the side of brightness because of brilliant leaf colour that can be encouraged.

Fertilising

Opinions vary among growers as to whether one should fertilise and if so, at what strength and with what frequency. This really depends on the amount and intensity of the light the plants are grown in, and on the genus. There is generally enough plant food in the mix when the plant is first planted and should last until flowering has finished and offsets removed. Many growers do not ever extra fertilize Neoregelias, or the stiff leaved Aechmeas, and they refrain from fertilizing window sill plants during the darker months of June through August. There is a consensus that Vrieseas like to be fertilized. Many branched varieties will not branch well without regular fertilization.

The strength of fertilizer used should not exceed one fourth to one third of the recommended dosage, if fertilizer is applied once a month. If fertilizing more frequently, dilute the fertilizer to an even weaker strength. Slow release pellets such as Osmocote, can be added on top of the soil at a dosage of about one quarter of a teaspoon for a five inch pot every three to four months. Never fertilise in the cup. This leads to an accumulation of salts that may burn newly emerging leaves.

Temperature

Bromeliads will be comfortable where you are comfortable. Generally, they prosper at temperatures between 10 and 30 C. They are not winter hardy except in tropical regions. They prefer temperatures below 40 C but most will tolerate the heat, especially if there is good air circulation.

Adelaide has a wider range of temperatures than these ideals which makes the successful growing of bromeliads even more satisfying. Luckily many Bromeliads are very adaptable and will cope with temperatures down to 0 C on the odd occasion.

Humidity and Air Circulation

High humidity and good air circulation are essential. Humidity can be increased indoors by humidifiers, grouping plants together, misting the area frequently, and setting the pot on rocks, such as lava chips, in a plant saucer, with water kept below pot level in the saucer. Plastic saucers are better, because clay ones absorb moisture, and may mar furniture or floors.

Nidulariums, Vrieseas, Guzmanias and Pitcairnias like the most humidity. Bromeliads, especially those that are mounted, require excellent air circulation, but not draughts. Bromeliads in nature are usually found in areas with prominent wind currents. Invest in a fan.

Artificial Light

Bromeliads can be grown indoors under artificial light. Fluorescent tubes are better than incandescent bulbs because a broader spectrum of light rays can be achieved with more intense light and less heat. Two to four tubes are best, depending on the plant's requirements. There are special tubes for plants, or a combination of a warm white and a cool white is quite effective. The closer to the tubes, the more light emitted. Smaller plants can be boosted to the lights by setting them on a pedestal, or an inverted pot. Even a desk lamp can be used with good success. Cryptanthus grow well under lights with African Violets Apart from this specialist genus we are lucky in Adelaide in not being forced to grow our plants for extended periods indoors.

Housing

Growing inside your home is not recommended but the plants will survive if on a window ledge facing north or east. West windows will mean sunburn and south windows strappy leaves. Patios and verandahs are great for Bromeliads but watch tor draughty areas and hot spots.

Trees in your backyard can provide protection for your bromeliad collection, but provide erratic shade - too dense or too light. they also drop leaves which in the wild is great because it provides nourishment for the plants and indigenous insects but creates smells and other nasties in your own backyard.

Shadehouses are ideal and come in various shapes and sizes with the cheapest being the one you build yourself. Vary the intensity of the shade within the one shadehouse so that you can grow a wider range of plants. Check for buildings/trees that cast extra shadows especially in the winter time. Try not to have rain water dripping off metal roof structures or permapine directly onto your Bromeliads. Marking and even a death can occur because of the metallic elements which Bromeliads love to consume and thus kill themselves.

Extra protection against rain can be given by using e.g. fibreglass, corflute or weather shield sheeting.

Greenhouses are great if you know how to modify the extremes of temperature. Remember Bromeliads like shade in some form and lots of air circulation.

Insects and Disease

Bromeliads are relatively pest free. Bromeliads rarely have any pests but if indoors or in areas with no free air flow you can expect scale and mealy bug.
Insecticidal soap such as Clensel, is recommended because not only does it keep your plants clean but it deters pests. Mealie bug can easily be removed by dabbing with a cotton bud dipped in Methylated Spirit.

People who live in the Tropics have more trouble with pests and we can learn a lot from their experience. the following is based on the experience of Rob Smythe who lives in Townsville.

Mossies like to breed in old ĎMotherí Neoregelias (those that have finished flowering). Mossies do not breed in clear water, they need food. If you have the time and patience there is the natural way to help rid you of mossies but interestingly Bromeliad tanks can reduce the mossie population. Let me explain. If you searched your local area for a pool of water without mosquitoes there would be natural predators keeping the mosquito population in check The use of insecticide in these cases kills the goodies! BUT if you grow Bromeliads you do not need to find your local pool of water, you have it close handy! If you have a Bromeliad that has had the same water for some time and there are no mossies then you can expect predators. Why not tip this water into where you see mossies and see what happens!

If you want to act quicker to rid yourself of scale, mealie bug, or mossies why not try the Canola Oil Method.

First make your White Oil mixture - 750ml Canola Oil, 3 tablespoons Sill detergent or Down to Earth detergent or Alginox and 1250ml water. Shake well.

Mossie spray - 50ml mixture to 4 litres water. Apply after rain.

Scale and mealie bug spray - 300ml mixture, 300ml vinegar (brand doesnít matter), or Ammonia (use Superior Brand) . Apply the acid (vinegar) preparation when plants are colouring up or apply the ammonia formulation when plants are in full growth.

Have you heard "Never use White Oil?" Remember that commercial white oil is made from paraffin/mineral oils and if used correctly on Bromeliads it will poison and smother the plant as well as the pest!

Canola white oil functions differently, it would smother the insect then degrade within a few days in bright light and can be washed off. Perfect, it does the job and doesnít hang around! Take the usual precautions like not spraying on hot sunny days. Spray in the evenings and wash off the excess in the morning.

Test soft and delicate plants. The ammonia formulation is known to burn delicate plants when it lodges between two soft leaves.

If you donít know much about the hazards of insecticides we suggest you read "Silent Spring" by Rachael Carson

Blooming

Most cultivated bromeliads bloom only once in their lifetimes. Plants mature and bloom at different ages, depending on their heredity and growing conditions. Some blooms, notably the Billbergias, last only a short time but have an array of colours difficult to match, while Aechmeas, with their varied range of flowers, can stay attractive for many months. Those plants that require lower light levels are easier to bring into bloom in the house than the higher light level plants.

Many bromeliads have such beautiful foliage that their bloom is regarded as a bonus, rather than an essential. A strong change in growing conditions, such as light, may trigger a mature plant to bloom. Excessive dryness also sometimes initiates bloom. There are chemicals that force bloom, but this is usually tricky to regulate, and often interferes with pup development. It is usually best to be patient, and allow nature to take its course.

Offshoots, Offsets, or Pups

After a plant has bloomed, it will very slowly die over the next year or two, but in most cases it will replace itself with new plants called pups, offsets or offshoots. Most pups grow off the side of the mother plant at the base. Remove these pups when they are about one third to one half the size of the mother plant. Use a sharp knife or clippers, and cut as close as possible to the mother plant without injuring it.

Some attachments are stoloniferous and are often very woody. You may need to borrow a saw to help you! If the pup has a long woody stolon, detach a large part of it before mounting, or potting.

The top can be twisted (not cut) directly out of the top of a supermarket pineapple, hardened for a week or two, and then potted successfully.

Some plants, like Cryptanthus, Orthophytums, and some Tillandsias, have pups further up on the mother plant. Their attachments are so fragile that they can be easily plucked off, and potted or mounted.

Always remove any brown leaves before potting a pup, and a dip in Rootone to prevent fungus is always a good idea. The mother plant, especially if helped along with a small amount of dilute fertilizer, will continue to produce pups until it dies.

Some pups are difficult to root. Place the pup in a plastic pot tall enough to support the pup. Place a small amount of peat moss at the bottom of the pot and place the rootless pup on top. Don't put any other mix in the pot. Water as you would the other plants in the collection. Roots usually will appear readily. Offsets will mature in one to three years depending on the genus.

Mounted Plants

Bromeliads except for Cryptanthus, Dyckia and other terrestrials, can be mounted to grow as epiphytes.

Grey leaved Tillandsias are dry growing and prefer mounting. Grape vine, driftwood, mallee roots, tree fern slabs, rocks and natural cork are good bases for mounting. Driftwood should be soaked for several days to leach out the salts before attaching plants. Use plastic coated wire, staples, various glues e.g. Selleys All Clear Sealant (non-silicon), Liquid Nails, Aquadhere, Gel Grip, or narrow strips of nylon stocking to tie or secure plants. Be careful not to damage the base of the plant. Some Tillandsias will never show root attachment.

Mounted plants depend on their leaves for moisture and food. Water the entire plant thoroughly at least twice a week, and douse them thoroughly in a tub or sink weekly. Don't allow water to sit in the leaf axils of fuzzy or grey leaved Tillandsias. Shake the water off, if necessary. Fertilise mounted plants sparingly with a diluted liquid fertilizer.

Buying Bromeliads

When purchasing bromeliads select healthy plants that are identified. Avoid plants whose leaves have unnatural markings or are strappy leaved.

Bromeliads grown in containers should be rooted in the porous soil and there should be drainage holes in the pot.

Bromeliads grown on cork or driftwood usually have few roots. Make sure the support is firm and that there is a hook for hanging it.

Bromeliads are sometimes sold 'bare root' which means they are not growing in a container. Plants sold this way are often a good buy, because you know whether to treat as an offset or plant and water accordingly.

Bromeliads may be bought as young plants or flowering specimens. Young plants are less expensive, usually adapt readily to a new environment, and you have the pleasure of growing them to flowering size. Bromeliads in flower are more expensive, but you have instant colour.

Bromeliad seed is also available but it is slow to germinate and plants take several years to reach flowering size. Begin with young or mature plants, then try seed if you seek a challenge.

Good luck and good growing


The following are just a few of the more common Bromeliads to give you an idea of what the different genera look like.

AECHMEA
This genus has a very wide distribution with some species from the Amazon area and thus needing artificial heat. All Aechmea have a spike of flowers and it can take up to three months before all the flowers open. As an example, Aechmea recurvata, loves total sunlight from April to October, which is the period it prefers to flower in. If given strong light the centre of the plant will change colour from orange to red or purple or black depending on the variety grown. Perhaps the plants are prickly but they are a colourful addition to the winter garden.

ANANAS
Everybody should be able to recognise this plant probably under its common name PINEAPPLE.

Horticulturally we do find that variegated specimens are grown by enthusiasts with a bit of space in the greenhouse.

Many have tried to grow the top of a pineapple fruit and many succeed for a short time. The trick seems to be to remove as much fruit from the top as possible, letting it dry for a few days before placing it on top of the growing medium. It is a gimmick and a bit of a laugh with lots of eventual failures. Many have claimed to have set fruit on their plants but we have only seen one authenticated effort and that was using a warm greenhouse. After all we donít have a Pineapple industry in Adelaide! However, if you want to prove us wrong.

BILLBERGIA
Most plants of this genus are easy to grow and have the most showy flowers of Bromeliads. Before the flowers open, the flower stem has large red banners heralding the flowers. These are called bracts and are there to attract humming birds. The flowers themselves come in an amazing range of colours, but you must make the most of their short flowering season. Nearly everyone has Billbergia nutans or its close relatives and its unique red, blue and green flowers has caused it to have many different names.

There are many others to choose from.

CRYPTANTHUS
These plants do need a different growing technique. They normally grow on the forest floor amongst the leafy litter and you too can grow them this way. However. you are forever bending over to admire them. Pot culture or better still Terrarium culture are the best options.

Don't mistake their hard leaves for hardiness, because they do not like our winters. They love moisture, warmth and diffused light and will reward with so many varying shapes and colours. Remember too much shade or too much light will tend to make your plants look alikes, losing their separate characteristics.

One of the forms of the illustrated plant produces offsets on long stolons and thus acquiring a common name of Cascade. A hanging basket prospect and a challenge worth trying.

DYCKIA
One of the few genera of Bromeliads that should not be grown in shade. Ideally grown as a rock plant, it is often confused with cactus. The mainly yellow to orange flowers are borne on a long stem and are in stark contrast to the dark green rosette of leaves. There are a few species where the rosettes have silvery coatings. lf grown in small pots in the sun, remember to protect the actual pot from the direct rays of the sun. Remember dark pots absorb heat and thus the plant roots are easily cooked.

GUZMANIA
Not recommended for the beginner. South Australia seems either too hot or too cold so if you don't lose them in winter, they die in the summer ! They do have spectacular flowers and as you gain expertise then this genus is worth a try.

Guzmania monostachia is one of the more hardy types but there are others available which are almost as hardy.

NEOREGELIA
This genus is probably the most widely grown of all the Bromeliads because so much hybridising has taken place resulting in many combinations of colour.

The leaves can be lined, spotted, mottled or banded. Some plants turn red to purple in the centre when flowering while others do not. Some just grow and grow.

Most are easy to grow under Adelaide conditions, but it is not easy to get a good colourful plant. Therein lies the challenge - too much shade too green a plant - too little shade much colour AND sunburn marks.

Some make clusters of small urn-shaped plants on stolons making them ideal for hanging baskets. Many hybrids of brilliant colours are available but species showing subtle variations can also be found.

NIDULARIUM
A very close relative to the Neoregelia. This genera needs more even temperatures than Adelaide usually provides. However there is generally one place in your garden where fluctuations are less and where you have shade. Grown properly this plant will reward with a flower head that rises from the centre of the plant and which has red to orange stiff bracts depending on the species.

ORTHOPHYTUM
This genus includes tall specimens and short fat ones. It contains the most spectacular to the most drab so get to know the names. All love our summers but none like our winters so extra protection over the winter months is essential.

PITCAIRNIA
These are the Cinderellas of the Bromeliad family but are being grown more widely in recent years. The more grass-like specimens do need some protection in the winter but, if you have a greenhouse, are worth trying. The stumpy ones will survive our winters if kept on the dry side.

PUYA
If you have a large backyard and do not mind prickles then this genus may interest you. It does include the largest Bromeliad and if you want to see this genus growing then pay a visit to the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. Small potted plants are sometimes available but for obvious reasons are not particularly popular.

TILLANDSIA
You may hear of these being called air plants but we ask that you try to educate others that these plants DO NEED REGULAR SPRAYING WITH WATER to survive. The number of these plants we see dying in Nurseries and Department stores make us want to form a Society called the RSPCT!

The grey leaved Tillandsias are popular in South Australia because they will grow in a wide range of conditions. If you are the forgetful type then hang them up in a shade house because that way Mother Nature gets a chance to water them.

Tillandsia ionantha is just one of many that likes living here and turns red to announce the arrival of its purple flowers.

This genus contains the Spanish moss and most of the species will grow epiphytically in Adelaide. This in itself is a remarkable achievement because so many of the other epiphytes such as orchids and ferns are so difficult to grow other than by pot culture. In recent years we have seen an upsurge in interest in these plants coincident with the destruction of their natural habitat, the rainforests of Central and Southern America.

All are slow growing under Adelaide conditions and if you have 10 years to spare then seed raising can be an absorbing hobby.

Just one little BEWARE. Some Tillandsias such as Tillandsia cyanea, love the Queensland summers and are spectacular when you see them in Nurseries just arrived from this area. Although this type can grow in South Australia it is a challenge which is often lost because the plant has not acclimatised to our conditions.

VRIESEA
Botanically very similar to Tillandsia but most seem to be more used to moisten conditions and therefore need more shade. Although some species have delicately marked leaves, most are dull green which does not make them appealing when not in flower. They are similar in this respect to Cymbidium orchids. Most grow on trees in their natural habitat but in South Australia we resort to pot culture.

When the flower spike does emerge you have a thing of beauty for some months. Enjoy the red - coloured sword while you can because generally speaking the yellowish flowers are produced singularly and all they seem to do is spoil the symmetry of the sword!


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