Donna PorterIt's a Wonderful World of Plants

The Bold, Boundless, Bizzare Bromeliads

By Donna Porter

The plethora of topical plants found within the borders of Costa Rica is truly one of the wonders that captivates its visitors and residents alike.  It is amazing to discover  the variety of places that a plant can actually situate itself and call “home”.  I am sure anyone who pays any attention to our natural landscape, has been awed by the sight of  seemingly hundreds of loosely vase-shaped plants nestled  and dangling amongst the branches of some trees.  At first observation one may think that this greenery is part of the actual tree, when in fact it is not.  These are our  native epiphytic-wonders called Bromeliads and there are an estimated 200 native species of Bromeliads alone in Costa Rica.

Bromeliads are members of a plant family known as Bromeliaceae and contains over 3000 species  worldwide.  The most well known bromeliad is the pineapple. The family contains a wide range of plants including some very un-pineapple like members such as Spanish Moss (which is neither Spanish nor a moss). Other members resemble aloes or yuccas while still others look like green, leafy grasses.

Bromeliads entered recorded history some 500 years ago when Columbus introduced the pineapple (Ananas comosus) to Spain upon return from his second voyage to the New World in 1493. On that voyage he found it being cultivated by the Carib Indians in the West Indies. Within 50 years,  this tropical fruit was being cultivated in India and other Old World countries.  It wasn’t until 1776 that another bromeliad (Guzmania lingulata) was brought to Europe,  Aechmea fasciata followed in 1828 and Vriesea splendens in 1840. for cultivation purposes.

Within the last hundred years, bromeliads have become more widely used as ornamental plants. Originally only found in royal botanical gardens or the private greenhouses of wealthy Europeans, their popularity has spread to the masses. Today bromeliads are more available to the enthusiast than ever before. New species are still being discovered and plant breeders are developing ever more spectacular, stunning hybrids to choose from. Bromeliads are another example of plants whose uncanny variegation of foliage, is worthy to stand alone.  But, its bizarre and stikingly peculiar looking flowers can appear to have come along with the latest influx of alien visitors.

In reality though, the majority of  Bromeliads come from South America with the greatest number of species found in Brazil. They range from Chile and Argentina in South America through Central America and the Caribbean reaching their northern limit in the southeastern United States.  Bromeliads altitude range is from sea level to over 14,000 feet. They can be found in a wide variety of habitats from hot, dry deserts to moist rainforests to cool mountainous regions.

Throughout the centuries, these plants have mastered the art of  adaptation and have been discovered growing in a variety of  unique situations. Terrestrial species, obviously, grow in the ground (the way we expect most plants to grow) and may be found growing in the shady understory of a forest among the leaf litter and debris to bright sun along sandy beaches.   Epiphytic species are found growing on other plants, usually trees, shrubs or cactus but oddly enough they have been found growing on telephone poles or even on the telephone lines themselves. This capability to take their nutrition and moisture from the atmosphere has earned these bromeliads the name “Air Plants”. The roots of epiphytic species develop to be as strong as wire that helps attach the plant to its host. Even though bromeliads are commonly called parasitos in Spanish-speaking countries, these epiphytes do not take sustenance from their host but merely use it for support.   Unbeknownst to many, there is a third category, the Saxicolous species, that are found growing on rocks and on hard rocky outcroppings where their roots may penetrate cracks and fissures to locate moisture or organic nutrients to the sheer and blunt faces of cliffs.

The strap-like or sword-shaped leaves of  bromeliads are composed in a spiral arrangement  called a “rosette”.  The number of degrees between successive leaves varies from species to species and is why some bromeliads, like my favorites the Neoregalias, grow in a flattened configuration with its leaves lined up in a single plane.   The bases of the leaves in the rosette overlap tightly to form a water-holding reservoir.  These types, often referred to as “tank” bromeiliads. rely less heavily on their roots for nourishment and are more often found as epiphytes.   The more ancestral terrestrial bromeliads do not have this water storage capability and rely primarily on their roots for water and nutrient absorption.

One common characteristic that all bromeliads share are tiny scales on their leaves called trichomes. These scales serve as a very efficient absorption system. In species found in desert regions where the air is hot and dry and the sun beats down relentlessly, these scales also help the plant to reduce water loss and shield the plants from the solar radiation. These plants are so covered with scales that they appear silvery-white and feel fuzzy. On many species (especially in more humid areas), the scales are smaller and less noticeable. Sometimes the scales can form patterns and banding on the leaves that add to the plant’s beauty.

As with some of our other tropical beauties including those in the Heliconia and Ginger families,  what many call the “flower” of the Bromeliad  is not the actual flower but, rather, it is the “bract” – a modified leaf and not, technically, even a part of the flower.   The true flower arises from within the bract.  To compare, for example, a rose  or a zinnia,  the showy part of the flower is the flower’s petals, and the bract is the small, green, leaf-like structure at the base of the flower.   One big advantage with these more turgid, durable, almost plastic-like, colorful  bracts – the showy , so-called “flowers” of the  Bromeliads, Heliconias and Gingers –  is that they can be cut and used in flower arrangements or by themselves and last for nearly a week, without even being placed in water..

With rare exceptions, bromeliads only flower a single time – once the plant stops producing leaves and produces its flower, it will not start making leaves again. It will, however produce new plantlets usually near the base of the plant called “offsets” or “pups”.  (Here our gardeners, interestingly enough, call them “hijos”).  These plants will feed off the “mother” plant until they are large enough to set roots of their own and survive as a separate plant. The mother may sometimes survive a generation or two before finally dying off. (hmmm, sound familiar).

My hope is to one day showcase an astounding collection of bromeliads within the botanical garden setting  and to be able to provide a much broader scope of information that will serve to inspire and increase its cultivation, its use in private gardens and its appreciation among plant enthusiast and  non-plant enthusiast alike.

Donna is a Horticulturist and has been living and working in Manuel Antonio for 6 years.  She consults, designs, installs and maintains gardens for private properties and also develops botanical trails. Donna is the founder and first Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and is pursuing the development of a botanical garden in, and for, the Quepos area. [email protected],  2777-5149

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