Bromeliads: Ornamental and edible in the garden
With drier winter weather expected in West Hawaii, we may want to consider plants that are somewhat drought tolerant. The bromeliad family offers a huge variety of worthy choices.
The more than 3,000 plants in the Bromeliaceae family are categorized as flowering monocots. Most are native to tropical areas in the Americas. Included are terrestrial species that root in soil, as well as epiphytes, or air plants, that get moisture and nutrients from the air, rainfall and the plant or structure they grow on. Bromeliads range in size from the tiny epiphytic Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, to huge rosette species with flower spikes up to 30 feet tall.
Bromeliads can be found at elevations from sea level to 4,000 feet and have developed many features that allow them to adapt to a wide range of climatic conditions. Their foliage varies from thin spikes to soft, broad, strap-like leaves. Most grow as a rosette of leaves that can vary widely in pattern and color. Bromeliad inflorescences are more diverse than those of any other plant family. Their stunning flowers, interesting leaf appearance and the variety of tolerances, as well as the deliciously edible pineapple species, make bromeliads excellent additions to West Hawaii landscapes.
In addition to pineapple, some of the most interesting and readily available species include the blanchetiana, silver vase, summer torch, zebra plant, blushing bromeliad and tillansia. Each has different characteristics, as well as appearance.
Aechmea blanchetiana is a drought- and salt-tolerant Brazilian epiphyte that grows in full sun and has strong leaf coloration in the yellow-orange range. The broad leaves are soft and the flower is a deep-orange spike. This variety is well-suited for hot, dry seaside locations.
The silver vase, or urn plant, Aechmea fasciata, is another epiphyte known for its feathery, long-lasting pink flower. Some cultivars produce deep purple leaves while others have striking green, white and yellow striped foliage. They grow well in pots, with partial shade and a consistent water supply, and can serve as attractive border plants in a garden.
Summer torch, Billbergia pyramidalis, is aptly named for its dramatic inflorescence that appears in summer. The bright red flower, which is sometimes tipped in blue, is surrounded by a funnel-shaped rosette of soft leaves that have minutely serrated edges. The plant in flower is about 18 inches tall. Though each rosette only flowers once, plants left in place in partial shade will quickly produce “pups” that can develop into an attractive terrestrial clump.
Cryptanthus zonatus, or zebra plant, is native to Brazilian rain forests. It grows well in pots but can also serve as a ground cover in a landscape. Its common name derives from the distinctive striped markings in its flat rosette of leaves. It requires shade and moisture to thrive, especially at lower elevations.
The reddish blush at the center of the leaf rosette is characteristic of several bromeliad species. Probably the most dramatic is Neoregelia carolinae “tricolor.” Another Brazilian native, this blushing bromeliad is a striking rosette of tricolored leaves about 1 foot in length. With longitudinal stripes of green, white and rose and the red blush at the center, this attractive specimen does well in pots, as a garden border or as a mounding ground cover. Another terrestrial rain forest native, the striped blushing variety produces its best color when grown in partial shade and moist soil.
The epiphytic Tillandsia cyancea is sometimes known as Kamehameha’s paddle, or pink quill. Native to Ecuador and Peru, it is an epiphyte but can adapt to terrestrial settings in well-drained soils in a humid environment with partial shade. The thin, spiky leaves of dark, almost reddish, green absorb moisture through their scaly surface. The notable feature of this plant is its paddle shaped magenta inflorescence topped with a small purple flower. Though usually less than 12 inches across, it makes an eye-catching specimen when nestled in the crotch of a small tree or fern or featured in an attractive pot.
Although we know pineapple best as a cash crop in Hawaii, an ornamental variety, Ananas comosus, is often included in landscape designs. This smaller, variegated form is another South American native that can be grown in full sun and it can tolerate heat, wind and some drought, as well as salt exposure. Though this species is lovely, its small fruit is not edible.
A larger version of the ornamental variety, also Ananas comosus, produces the tasty fruit. Botanically, a pineapple consists of coalesced berries that were named for their resemblance to the pine cone. Many local gardeners prefer to grow the delicious, low-acid cultivar Kona sugarloaf, or white pineapple.
Pineapples are drought tolerant, requiring only about 30 inches of rain a year. They can be grown from sea level to about 2,000 feet in full sun and slightly acidic soil that drains well. They have a shallow root system. Mulching can help retain moisture in the root zone and regular fertilization can aid fruit production.
Most bromeliads produce suckers, offshoots or pups, making them easy to propagate. New pineapple plants can be grown from the tops of the fruit or from the slips that appear just below the fruit. It’s important to twist the tops from the fruit so that none of the fruit adheres to the root zone to cause rotting. Removing a few tiers of leaves can help expose the area from which the roots will grow.
Once planted, pineapples can take 15 to 30 months to fruit. A single sucker from the original plant may produce in 15 to 18 months but the fruit will be smaller. Healthy plants can reach 5 feet in height with a wide spreading rosette of sword shaped leaves. The fruit has been cultivated to be seedless for easier eating. Without local hummingbirds for pollination, seeds rarely form. Some gardeners who grow several varieties have reported finding seeds, perhaps caused by wind-driven cross pollination.
Bromeliads require very little care and attention. Though they are susceptible to disease and insect attacks, serious issues do not usually develop outside of large commercial plantings. Some people avoid bromeliads because some varieties hold a reservoir of water in their rosette of leaves. A drop of soap in the “cup” will deter mosquitoes. Coqui frogs may visit bromeliads for water, but many other valuable insect, plant and animal species benefit from the water-holding ability of these plants. If coquis frequent your bromeliads, coqui hunting can be simplified by the plant’s presence.
Most nurseries carry bromeliads. View bromeliad images online to help you choose a desirable variety. Find photos and descriptions at hawaiianbotanicals.com. A YouTube slide show from Bromeliads Hawaii in Hilo is available by searching “Bromeliads Hawaii.”
Diana Duff is an organic farmer, plant adviser and consultant.