If exotic foliage and stunning blooms cause your heart to race, ornamental bromeliads (Bromeliaceae family) deserve your attention. Hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 10 and 11, these frost-sensitive beauties belong to the same family as Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), a native bromeliad found in USDA zones 8 through 11. Bromeliad lovers celebrate dozens of ornamental species known for colorful foliage, unusual blossoms and easy care.
For success with ornamental bromeliads, understand their native habitat. Known as epiphytes -- plants that get moisture and nutrition from air -- they're more at home in trees than in soil. In tropical environments, the roots serve mostly as support. Planted in pots or the garden, bromeliads demand porous, fast-draining soil. Orchid bark or African-violet-type soil works well. The pot on a purchased bromeliad often accommodates the plant its entire life. Small pots contain less soil and keep oxygen available to roots. Adventurous warm-climate gardeners train bromeliads to grow on trees by securing them until epiphytic roots take hold.
Providing Light and Warmth
Filtered light in the understory of a tropical forest hints at bromeliad needs. In general, they prefer bright, diffused light rather than direct sun. With light too bright, bromeliads pale and turn yellow-green. With too little light, foliage softens and darkens. Bromeliad species with thick leaves or silvery foliage handle higher light well. Soft- and thin-leaved bromeliads prefer less light. Extra light encourages color for bromeliads with center leaves bathed in red. Bromeliads do best when temperatures stay between 50 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with night temperatures toward the low end of that range.
Supplying Needed Water
Bromeliad leaves often radiate from a center cup that collects moisture from humidity, condensation and tropical rain. Many enthusiasts keep that cup filled with fresh water, but harmful salts accumulate if tap water is used. For indoor bromeliads, water every one to two weeks. Sit the plant in a sink and fill the cup with water until it overflows and moistens the soil. Water should run freely through the pot. When finished, empty the cup. In the garden, periodically flush cups so water doesn't stagnate -- and mosquitoes don't call them home. If temperatures drop toward zero, remove water sitting in cups.
Fertilizing depends on the species, light levels and conditions. Houseplants rarely need fertilizer. In warm-climate landscapes or outdoor containers, light fertilizer helps during bright summer months. Use slow-release, granular 14-14-14 fertilizer every three to four months at a rate of 1/4 teaspoon per plant. Apply it to the plant's soil and water the area. For bromeliads that grow flower spikes, use a bloom-enhancing, water-soluble, 10-30-20 fertilizer at half-strength every two months. Mix 1/4 teaspoon with 1 gallon of water, and water the soil. Never pour fertilizer solution into bromeliad cups. No fertilizer is needed during winter.
Handling Pups and Pests
Bromeliads flower only once. Then they slowly die over one to two years. During that time, baby bromeliads -- known as pups -- develop at the base. Separate pups when they near one-half mature size. Allow them to dry a few days, then plant them in damp peat moss. Once rooting starts, transplant pups into small pots. Expect color in one to three years. Bromeliads have few pests or disease. If scale appears, remove the pests by hand. Use alcohol-dipped cotton to wipe away mealybugs. In warm regions, Mexican bromeliad weevil threatens many bromeliads. A beneficial insect, the parasitic tachinid fly, is the best defense.