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Bromeliads

The Bromeliaceae family contains more than 3000 species in 56 genera. Bromeliads have adapted to survive in a diverse range of environments, growing terrestrially (in the ground), as lithophytes (on rocks) and epiphytes (on other plants).

Native to tropical North and South America, Bromeliad habitats range from deserts to rainforests, from sea level to altitudes of over 4,000 metres. Their leaves are often spiny, patterned and powdery in appearance and have tiny scales called trichomes that help them absorb water. There are 55 Bromeliads listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Bromeliads are herbaceous evergreen perennials with their leaves arranged in spirals. Many Bromeliads are monocarpic which means that they flower just once before they die. However all is not lost! Most Bromeliads produce ‘pups’ so that the plant’s survival is assured once each rosette of leaves dies.

Many epiphytic Bromeliads have a ‘water tank’ created by tight rosette-forming leaves that help them survive during dry times. Differing from other plants that absorb nutrients and water via their roots, for many Bromeliads the primary function of the roots is to act as anchors allowing them to attach to their hosts.

There’s such a vast range of Bromeliad varieties that you’re sure to find one that’s right for you. They’re ideal for warm climate gardens and range from compact species to huge plants with vibrant foliage and spectacular flowers. Support the Gardens by visiting the Gardening Friends Nursery at your nearest Botanic Garden to see what they have in their range at the moment.

Garden sign story: Adapt and survive

There’s no challenge they can’t handle!

From the scorching desert to the dark damp rainforest, bromeliads have adapted to thrive. Over 3,500 species grow across the tropical and subtropical Americas, and just one in west Africa. It’s easy to spot their wild origins. Look for clues in the circular rosette of leaves: Sunlovers have thick, leathery leaves and a silvery sheen. Rainforest residents are deep green tender-leaved tree-huggers. Desert dwellers are spiny and grey

Size limits

The world’s largest bromeliad, the Queen of the Andes (Puya raimondii), has a 15 metre high flower-spike! At the other extreme is the tiniest bromeliad — the eight-centimetre Tillandsia ionantha.

Queen of the Andes – Puya raimondii Syn. Pourretia gigantea

First Nations names: Titanka, Kunku, and Makirwa (Mapuche)

 

Native to the high, dry Andes mountains, Puya raimondii is the largest known bromeliad species; it has a striking architectural form and grows up to 15 metres high including the flower spike.

The Queen of the Andes bloom is the largest among all plants based on the physical size of the compound flower spike of up to 20,000 florets. They have a life span of up to 100 years, then die after they have flowered.

What's in the Queen's name?

The genus name Puya is from the Chilean Mapuche language, meaning ‘point’. It is also known locally as ‘Titanka’, ‘Kunku’, and ‘Makirwa’ in different dialects of the Quechua language of the First Peoples of the Peruvian Andes.

The epithet raimondii was given to honour the 19th-century Italian geographer and naturalist Antonio Raimondi (1826-1890) who collected plants in Peru.

Puya raimondii grows in stands in the dry, cold, rocky slopes and sparse shrublands at 3000- 4,800 metres in the Andes of Bolivia and Peru. 

Although the 6,000-hectare Titankayocc Forest Regional Conservation Area in Peru has more than 200,000 Queen of the Andes specimens, it is considered endangered due to its limited natural regeneration, land degradation, collection for fuel, and grazing.

Puya raimondii is a terrestrial bromeliad with a dense rosette of razor-sharp, grey-green, leathery leaves on a thick and woody stem up to 5 metres tall. The long, narrow leaves grow up to 1.25 metres and have barbed spines that sometimes trap birds and small animals. 

When Puya raimondii is between 80 and 100 years old, a single vertical flower spike reaching up to 10 metres grows over a three-month period. The bloom has up to 20,000 individual 5cm flowers with three creamy-white petals and striking orange anthers, which twist up the stem in a spiral. 

Hummingbirds and insects pollinate the Queen of the Andes’ bloom, and the plant does not produce pups (offset juveniles). It flowers only once in its life, between January and May, and then dies. Millions of seeds form in capsules along the flower stem, but rarely germinate, contributing to the plant’s endangered status.

Puya alpestris subsp. zoellneri, the Blue Puya can be found in Bed 43.

Neoregelia – the Blushing Bromeliads

Neoregelia are vibrantly-coloured bromeliads from tropical South America with many hybrids. The eye-catching cultivars are available in various patterns, and their colours become more intense when grown in higher light.

They can be epiphytes, lithophytes, or terrestrial and have a symbiotic relationship with frogs and insect larvae which breed in the 'water tank' created by the plant's central rosette of leathery leaves.

'Regelia' was the name given to this Bromeliad to honour Edouard August von Regel (1815-1892), botanist and director of St. Petersburg Botanic Gardens in Russia. 'Neo' is from the Greek 'neos' which means new or fresh and was added to distinguish the plant from another Regelia genus in the Myrtaceae family, which was also named after von Regel. 

Neoregelia are excellent potted plants and easy to grow in subtropical conditions with plenty of moisture and air circulation. They are grown for their brightly-coloured leaves, which return to green in low light, so it's essential to plant them in a brightly lit spot.

Their shallow, fibrous root system is not used to absorb nutrients; it functions as an anchor and will rot in soil, so the plant needs a soil-less potting mix. Neoregelia can be propagated by removing and replanting the 'pups' (offshoots) when two-thirds the size of the parent and by division of established clumps.

Support the Gardens' important work and visit your nearest Growing Friends Nursery to check out their current range of bromeliads. 

There are over 100 species of Neoregelia at the Royal Botanic Garden, including Neoregelia' Hannibal Lecter' which can be found in Bed 18b.

To find other species in the Garden, type Neoregelia in the 'Common or Scientific Name' field in the Garden Explorer tool.

Garden sign story: Breeding beauty

It's not about the flowers!

Neoregelias say it all with their leathery leaves — brightly coloured, spotted and striped. The tiny flowers are almost hidden, deep in the water tank. Plant breeders use a toothpick to hand-pollinate the flowers, creating new hybrids: There are thousands of Neoregelia varieties in a rainbow of colours and patterns.

Image: Pollinating Neoregelia plants takes a steady hand and a keen eye! ©J.PLAZA Blushing Bromeliads Neoregelia species

Light-lovers

These showy plants respond to bright light by developing intense colours. But in a shady location, they may lose their vibrancy and could even revert to green!

Tillandsia usneoides – the bearded Bromeliad

First Nations name: Itla-okla (Choctaw)
Common names: Spanish Moss, Barba de Palo, Old Man’s Beard

Tillandsia usneoides is known as ‘Itla-okla’, which translates as ‘tree hair’ in the Choctaw language of the Native American people from the south-eastern woodlands of Alabama and Mississippi. It hails from the coastal regions of the south-eastern USA from Virginia to Texas and south to central Argentina and Chile.

Often referred to as an ‘Air Plant’ due to its epiphytic nature, Tillandsia usneoides is an attractive silvery cascade of slender stems. It loves humid conditions and is spread by birds and possums who make nests from the soft foliage. Although it’s not a parasite, the plant is covered with tiny scales which absorb water and nutrients leached from the vegetation of its host.

Swedish Naturalist, Carl Linnaeus named the genus Tillandsia for his teacher Elias Erici Tillandz (1640-1693), Swedish botanist and professor of medicine. The species name ‘usneoides’ indicates this plant’s resemblance to the genus of lichens, Usnea.

Tillandsia usneoides is found on the coast of south-eastern USA from Virginia to Texas and south to central Argentina and Chile. Its native environment ranges from sea level to 3300 m altitude in lowlands, swamps, and marshes in subtropical and tropical habitats, including mangroves, scrub, rainforest, and montane cloud forests.

Commonly known to us as Spanish Moss, it is classified as a naturalised weed of coastal, subtropical New South Wales and Queensland.

Spanish Moss grows in beardlike cascades on trees in moist subtropical and tropical climates. Its thread-like stems can grow up to 8 metres long; its narrow silver-grey leaves grow to 7.5 cm.

This Bromeliad rarely flowers, but when it does, it’s in the warmer months. The blooms are usually singular, yellow and stalkless, with three petals and three sepals. Its tiny flowers are fragrant at night and are pollinated by insects

Spanish Moss’ fruits are up to 3 cm long; when they're ripe, they split open and release seeds that are dispersed by the wind, animals and birds.

In addition to Bed Sn1 and Bed Sn3, you will find Spanish Moss in and around the Tropical Garden on the Indian Rosewood Dalbergia sissoo in Bed 41b. It is also growing on a Tulipwood Harpullia pendula on the Band Lawn.
 

Garden sign story: Air Plants

Tillandsia species

They’re so hairy! Bromeliad leaves have trichomes — microscopic modified hairs or scales.

Silver super-powers

Tillandsias have velvety surfaces that reflect light and heat, giving them silvery sheen. Spanish Moss, (Tillandsia usneoides) doesn’t have roots; instead, the trichomes on its surface trap and absorb moisture from rainwater and fog, and nutrients from the air. Some tillandsias have protective trichomes that ooze mucilage — sticky goo that deters small herbivores and pathogens.

Image (left): Scanning Electron Microscope image of a bromeliad trichome. ©Science Photo Library/Alamy Image (right): Spanish moss in Caddo Lake State Park, USA.

Hairy Defence

Desert-dwelling tillandsias can handle searing heat and sunlight. Their hairy trichomes trap humidity, keeping their leaves moist. The trichomes also act as sun-screen, reflecting damaging infrared and UV radiation.

Guzmania – bring colour to your container garden with a Vase Plant!

Common names: Vase Plants, Tufted Air Plants and Torch Bromeliads

Native to the Neotropics, from Florida to South America, there are more than 200 Guzmania species and many hybrids. They are colourful, striking Bromeliads with brightly coloured flower spikes, and they often have interesting markings on their leaves.

The genus Guzmania is named for Spanish pharmacist Anastasio Guzman who died while collecting South American plants (and hunting for the mythical lost treasure of the Incas) in Ecuador in 1807.

Guzmania are the ideal indoor plant

A great Bromeliad for the indoor container gardener, the Vase Plant needs a very well-drained potting mix, warm and humid conditions and bright but indirect light to flower. They tolerate artificial lighting, and their dramatic form and flower spikes make them exciting specimens. They are often grown as a ground cover in the shade of trees in tropical and subtropical climates

Guzmania species’ native range is from Florida to Tropical America, with their highest concentration in Central America. In the wild, Guzmania grows on trees and rocks in non-tidal wetlands and forests in coastal areas with warm, humid climates and at altitudes of up to 3,500 metres in the Andean rainforests.

The Guzmania’s long, slender, leathery leaves form a funnel-shaped rosette topped by a single brilliant torch-like flower spike with showy bracts (leaflike appendages that form under the flowers).

Growing up to 50 cm, Guzmania leaves are often green-and-white striped; the bracts on the flower spike are often vibrantly coloured and can be bright red, yellow, orange, purple, or pink.

In addition to pups, Guzmania produces long, cylindrical seed capsules that grow up to 4 cm.

More than 25 Guzmania hybrids grow in the gardens at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.

One of these is Guzmania lingulata × wittmackii which is found in Bed 49 and Bed 65a.

Garden sign story: Vase plants – Guzmania species

Biodiversity booster

Bromeliad water tanks mean life for rainforest creatures. Monkeys, lizards and birds drop in for drinks and snacks. Frogs, insects and microscopic creatures can live their entire lives inside the tiny ecosystems. The flowers are an important food source for thousands of different pollinators including birds, bats and insects. 

Image: A hopeful Mail Monkey (Macaco prego) looks for food in a bromeliad, in Itatiaia National Park, Brazil. © R. Coelho/Shutterstock

Plant pups

Like all Bromeliads, Guzmanias are monocarpic — they flower just once in their life. After blooming, they continue growing from offsets or ‘pups’ produced at the base of the plant as it matures. These are clones, and each one will grow into an identical new plant. Image: Dividing Guzmania pups.

Silver Vase Plant – the elegant Bromeliad

Aechmea species

Also known as the Urn Plant and comprising more than 250 species with over 500 cultivars, Aechmea are native to the Neotropics (Central and South America).

These Bromeliad species are mostly epiphytic and have diverse foliage, flower colour and growth habits. Their eye-catching, long-lasting, spear-like flowers and elegant vase-like form differentiate them from other Bromeliads.

The species' name 'Aechmea' comes from the Greek word 'aichme' which means spear point, and refers to the Silver Vase Plant's dramatic, spear-like flowers

The Aechmea species is an excellent clumping landscape plant for gardens in tropical and subtropical areas as long as they are planted in well-drained, shady, but well-lit positions.

They grow happily in outdoor container gardens and hanging baskets in lightly shaded spots and are long-day bloomers, needing more than 12 hours of sunlight.

Their intensely coloured flowers and bracts make them a popular indoor plant, but they can become top-heavy in pots.

Aechmeas' native habitats vary widely from Mexico through Central and South America (mainly in Brazil) and the Caribbean.

Their growing conditions range from humid tropical montane forests to the cooler subtropical areas of southern Brazil and Argentina, the upper forest canopy of the Amazonian rainforest to the restinga (dry coastal forests of Brazil). Other Aechmeas are found in sand in full sun (A. discordiae) and on rocky outcrops (A. entringeri).

Aechmeas are a large and diverse group of tropical Bromeliads with plants ranging from 10 cm to 1.5 metres tall. They form clumps either on trees as epiphytes or as specimens in the ground and are distinguished by their enduring inflorescences that last up to 6 months.

They have stiff, spiny leaves that offer the plant protection from grazing animals. The sometimes patterned leaves form wide, spreading, urn-shaped rosettes, and most Aechmeas prefer shade.

Attract frogs with Aechmeas!

Aechmeas roots are used as anchors and the plants gain their water and nutrients from the 'tank' formed in the central funnel of their tight rosettes of leaves. The 'tank' makes them a potential mosquito hazard in home gardens, but they are a great habitat plant for insects and frogs.

Pollinated by hummingbirds in the wild, Aechmea usually need the pollen of another plant to be fertilised. They produce small seed-bearing fleshy berries which take about eight months to ripen.

Propagation can be by seed or pups (offsets) appearing at the plant's base after flowering. Commercial producers use tissue culture to propagate Aechmeas.

Garden sign story: Spear plants – Aechmea species

It's the perfect froggy home, and the rent is cheap — poo provides the plant with the nutrients it needs to grow

Happy house-mates

High above the rainforests of South America, Poison Dart Frogs make their homes in the water-tanks of Spear Plants — Aechmea bromeliads. Stiff, spiky leaves fend off predators, making a safe refuge for the tiny residents. Hundreds of frog species are bromeligenous — from egg to tadpole to frog, their entire life cycle takes place in the micro-ecology of the bromeliad host's water tank. Without bromeliads, these little frogs would disappear forever.

Image (left): Maroon Eyed Tree Frog sitting on a bromeliad. ©J. McGraw/Shutterstock. Image (right): Aechmea nudicaulis var. aureorosea provide habitat for Poison Dart Frogs in south-eastern Brazil. ©L.C. Marigo/Alamy

Pineapples – the sweetest of all Bromeliads

Ananas comosus 

Ananas comosus is a terrestrial bromeliad which originally grew in a wide variety of habitats: forest and woodland, savanna, shrubland, native grassland and freshwater wetlands.

The modern Pineapple is a selectively bred descendant of wild plants thought to be from south-eastern and southern Brazil and Paraguay. It is an important commercial crop grown in the tropics and subtropics worldwide.

Ananas comosus grows from 50 cm to 1.5 metres tall, with a rosette of 30 to 40 stiff, waxy, strappy grey-green to reddish leaves up to 1 metre long and 4 cm wide.

The leaves are sometimes sharply serrated and grow spirally on a short stem, with a single, central flower spike. Our modern pineapples are seedless, but bees, sunbirds and hummingbirds are thought to have been their original pollinators.

Ananas comosus’  tough, waxy rind forms in hexagonal units which are dark-green, yellow, orange or red when the fruit ripens. The rind’s spiralling hexagonal pattern displays the Fibonacci sequence. The pineapple's sweet flesh ranges from nearly white to yellow, and commercial fruit can weigh up to 2.5 kg.

How long does it take to grow a pineapple?

Pineapples have a life cycle of about two and a half years. The fruit is seedless and juicy, ripening five to six months after flowering begins.

Find Ananas comosus using the Garden Explorer in H3 and Bed 20a.
 

Garden sign story: Hoyriri (Tupinamba language) Pineapple Ananas comosus

The perfect ‘status fruit’ — expensive, exotic and hard to come by!

Fruity superstar

Pineapples became an icon of luxury, power and wealth in 18th century Europe. Vast sums were spent trying to grow pineapple plants in unsuitable climates. The fourth Earl of Dunmore built a walled garden to shelter his precious pineapple plants. Crowned by a themed summerhouse, it’s known as ‘the most bizarre building in Scotland’!

Image: The Dunmore Pineapple. ©U. Media/Shutterstock