(Growing Bromeliads in Fiji)

By: Dick Phillips

From the Bromeliad Conference held in Adelaide, Australia in 1987

Dick Phillips is becoming well known in Bromeliad circles having attended Australian Conventions and has had articles accepted by the B.S.I. Journal.

Dick was last in Adelaide in 1945 so not only has he seen great changes here but has no doubt seen great changes in his own life style.

Officially retired he still

  1. Gets involved with the Fiji Tourist Industry.
  2. Acts as a landscape consultant.
  3. Tells people via radio how to grow plants properly, and
  4. Shows his entrepreneurial skills in promoting hydroponic vegetables on a commercial scale.
We in the driest state in the driest continent measure rain in millimetres whereas Fiji measures the same substance in metres. Perhaps it is more diluted. In any event, Bromeliads grow there, albeit with webbed feet, although one wonders if this phenomenon also applies to the human population.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dick Phillips

When I was asked to speak about growing Bromeliads under wet conditions, it seemed like a good and, if you will pardon the expression, a very topical topic. Suva, which is usually a fairly wet spot, had broken all records and in the first four months of 1986 we had had 100 inches of rain. As our usual average is only 120 inches it looked as though we were in for a fairly damp year. That 100 inches had been recorded in the official rain gauge which is situated in the dryer part of town. On one memorable day in April 1986, the official rain gauge recorded 11 inches of rain but a private gauge close to where I live recorded 29 inches and the Weatherman admitted that this was probably correct. I expect that I had had about 150 inches of rain on my one third of an acre in four months - which is not exactly dry weather!

Then things changed. For months we had relatively little rain. We had water restrictions after the extremely heavy rains of April because the river from which we take our water turned to slush and blocked the intake pipe and filters. We had water restrictions several months later when the water in the river dropped below the level of the intake pipes. You can't win!

For the remaining eight months of 1986 we had only 24 inches of rain so we finished the year just a few inches above normal.

Nevertheless, 120 inches is not a low rainfall so, hopefully, my topic of web footed Bromeliads is still reasonably valid.

Over the past three years I have built up a completely new work pattern and I am now a gardening consultant (lovely expensive word!) to a number of resort hotels off the west coast of Viti Levu, near Nadi Airport. This means that I am away from Suva most of the time and my Bromeliads have really had to fend for themselves As any experienced grower will know, the plants have, in most cases, thrived and have more or less told me that they can do quite well without me.

As you are aware, I have grown most of my Bromeliads from seed so they have had the chance to acclimatise right from the time that they were tiny seedlings. While I expect that species of the Subfamily Bromelioideae and most of those in the Subfamily Pitcairnioideae would have grown reasonably well if I had been able to bring them into Fiji as plants, I doubt that the xerophytic members of the Subfamily Tillandsioideae would have been able to make the necessary adjustment to wet conditions. Indeed this has been borne out by the few plants which 'friends' have brought into Fiji for me without going through the normal channels.

In a few minutes you will be seeing a few slides (sorry, we don't have the slides) which will show much better than I can describe in words how I grow my plants. There are a few comments that might be helpful. I grow all my tank-type Bromeliads in rotting wood shavings under 30% shade or in heavier shade under citrus trees - this latter allows me to lift the plants very easily each year, remove the woodshavings, fertilize the trees, then replace the woodshavings plus some new material to make up for the shrinkage. I then replant the bromeliads after cleaning them and removing dead and dying older plants. This helps to keep the shallow rooted citrus happy with cool moist soil and the Bromeliads do not compete with the citrus for nutrients in the soil. Using a watering can, I water the newly planted Bromeliads with a weak, high nitrogen fertilizer (Aquasol or similar) so that there is no chance of nitrogen starvation for the plants as a result of the addition of new woodshavings.

This method covers Aechmea, Neoregelia, Nidularium, Portea (though they like plenty of sun), Quesnelia, Hohenbergia, Wittrockia, Guzmania and Vriesea.

Billbergia, other than B. pyramidalis var. pyramidalis, will not grow under these conditions and the few that I have been able to keep alive and to flower are grown as epiphytes on treefern logs well above the ground. Billbergias, I believe, are more cold climate plants - if I have read Olwen Ferris' comments correctly, she finds they grew better in Sydney than on the Gold Coast.

Cryptanthus will grow in rotting woodshavings but do better with the addition of just a little soil. They also like small concrete pots but this is probably because they are then up on shelves and my two dogs and two cats do not walk (or run) across them at regular intervals! Orthophytum saxicola will grow under the same conditions but likes more soil added and the pots in plenty of sun for good colour.

Acanthostachys strobilacea and Streptocalyx longifolius (now Aechmea longifolia) prefer to grow as epiphytes on treefern logs in full sun. Of the latter, one of my friends said, "You would grow things like that. They are prickly, just like you!" I suppose it is good to have friends who keep you cut down to size.

The terrestrials usually get pretty rough treatment. Ananus comosus likes hot, dry, acid soils but does surprisingly well in Suva - it has a better flavour in the hotter, dryer western areas. Dyckias grow like weeds in full sun or full shade but only flower well in full sun during long dry periods. In wet weather the flower spikes develop looking more like vegetative growths than inflorescences, they reach a certain size, then develop no further. If taken off and planted as pups, they die - very slowly - and grow no roots. This growth pattern is somewhat like the soft cane Dendrobium orchids - D.nobile, etc - which develop vegetative growths rather than inflorescences.

I have a few Puyas and grow them on the only bank that can be regarded as slightly dry and hot. Only one has regularly reached maturity and flowered, most have rotted off when the plants reached a span of two to three feet. The exception is P. mirabilis which flowers, sets seed for new plants but develops no pups.

Bromelias grow like weeds in sun or shade - what gorgeous prickly monsters these are! However, their flowering even in full sun is a disappointment as Bromelia balansae never develops the brilliant red that I have seen in photos from overseas. But as for keeping dogs, cats, burglars, children or whatever in their proper place, Bromelias are unsurpassed.

So we come to the grey Tillandsias. I suppose that it is one of man's peculiarities that he tries to do the impossible. What idiot thought of growing grey Tillandsias in 120 inches of rain - thats 10 feet and means that 900,000 gallons of rain fall on my one third acre in one year. But in the Palm Society we have idiots in Finland, Switzerland and Alaska who grow palms, so why not a few idiots in the Bromeliad world?

I am very strongly of the opinion that the answer to my success lies in the fact that I grow my plants from seed. Most of you will know and I shall shortly show you how I grow Tillandsia seeds on rope (BSIJ 1980 pp68 - 73) where they stay quite happily for years, later being transferred to blocks of treefern to which they are glued. I used to use Aquadhere but some dropped off if the glue was not properly set so I have changed to the glue gun - the heat does not seem to worry the plants if they are a reasonable size and the glue holds them very well.

Most of the treefern slabs with their plants attached are hung on a wire mesh trellis or on cylinders of the same material about five or six inches in diameter. On these they drain very quickly but even after heavy rain some of the plants at the bottom of the trellis are still relatively dry. In dry weather both the seeds on rope and the plants on treefern slabs get full heavy drenching from the hose not less than once every two days. Yet I have had very, very little trouble with plants rotting out. All these plants are under 30% sarlon during the summer, the shadecloth being taken off for three or four months during the winter.
Part of the reason for this is that the sun is directly overhead in summer - remember that we are north of the Tropic of Capricorn and the sun spends some time south of us during the summer. During the winter my garden is sheltered by a number of trees and some areas get very little direct sun after about 11 a.m.

I still have quite a few species of Tillandsias which have not flowered after seven or eight years from seed but there are others which flower every year. The regulars are T. paucifolia (it was T. circinnata), T. caput-medusae, T. gardneri, T. schiedeana. Others flower with less regularity and I look forward to the day when my numerous plants of T. streptophylla decide to flower though I think this is still a few years away.

Two other Tillandsias which flower regularly are T. anceps and T. cyanea - both growing on slabs of treefern.

Because of my work on the western side of the island I have had to get a flat in Lautoka and, naturally, I have taken some of my plants with me - including some 500 hibiscus. Here it is somewhat hotter and much drier although there are some 80 inches of rain a year but about 60 inches comes in the four months from November to February.

Here the silver Tillandsias ARE silver rather than the grey of Suva but they must be given some shade and must not be out in the hot sun after rain. Perhaps I should explain that we seldom get long periods of wet weather but it can rain quite heavily for an hour or two, then the clouds clear away and hot sun follows - it is this hot sun hitting the wet Tillandsias which causes the trouble and it has led to the death of quite a few. Now I keep them under the eaves of the house where they get very strong light but not a lot of direct sun and I water them heavily with the hose practically every afternoon during the summer. This treatment is also necessary for T. usneoides or it soon dies. Incidentally, only once in about 15 years have I seen T. usneoides flowering and, even then, there were only one or two flowers.

As you will see from several of the slides, I have been away when the seedpods dehisced and wet weather has followed soon after. As a result most of the seed has stayed on the plants and germinated in situ. I have been able to send some of this seed to Seedbanks - surprisingly it will travel through the post quite well which just shows how tough the tiny plants can be. I have had similar good results with germinated seed from America.

I use insecticides and fungicides only as necessary. The main use for insecticides is to control mosquitoes - this is vital as mosquitoes carry certain diseases. Although we are very lucky not to have malaria in Fiji, we do have Dengue, an unpleasant little disease which makes you feel that you just want to curl up and die - which you don't. So at times I spray the whole Bromeliad area.

Fungicides are necessary when any rot strikes and I do not hesitate to use strong mixtures when I think it is necessary. When a combination of fungi and algae attack my seedlings I douse them with a double strength solution of two fungicides - the seedlings stand up well. I used a similar treatment on Vriesea seedlings which started to rot out in the centre. I lost very few plants and there was an interesting side effect. The only plants affected were those under cover which were watered with the normal supply which is slightly alkaline. After treatment they were very, very slow recovering. However, I put them outside in the slightly acid rain and regrowth was almost immediate.

I feel sure that the heavy rainfall and high humidity (50% humidity is very low for us) allow me to use chemicals at much higher strengths than would be possible in dryer areas where some chemical burn may occur.

So, for the last three years, my Bromeliads have grown rather well without a lot of attention from me. I am glad that I chose such accommodating plants to grow.

Might I finish these notes with the comment that Bromeliads have also allowed me to meet a group of rather wonderful people and for this, too, I am very grateful.