Trowel & Error

Beyond the pineapple

Brighten winter with bromeliads

By Nancy Crowe

Bromeliads look and even sound exotic, but Master Gardener Nancy Crowe understands how to grow them.When someone in Florida told me she planted the top of a pineapple and grew a beautiful houseplant, I had to try it. The effort was fruitless — or, more accurately, rootless. Adding a few oranges and bananas for a Carmen Miranda-style hat would have been a more productive use of that pineapple top.

Further (however belated) research indicated it might have helped to 1) root the pineapple top in water before planting it; 2) use a much lighter and better-draining potting medium and 3) mist the leaves daily, as this experiment was conducted in the dry dead of winter. All good reasons to try again.

Pineapples are the best-known members of the bromeliad family. Like most families, bromeliads include a diverse cast of characters, such as Spanish moss and the plants that add incongruous tropical décor to Midwestern shopping malls. Terrestrial species like pineapples grow in the ground, but others grow on rocks or trees. All bromeliads have a “rosette” of leaves in a spiral formation. In some species, ants dwell in the small chambers between the leaves. In exchange for this prime real estate, the ants’ waste nourishes the plant. Think about that next time you pay the mortgage.

If you want to try growing a pineapple, visit www.btny.purdue.edu/outreach. Click the “Teaching Resources” link in the introductory paragraph. Then scroll down the page and download “Growing a Pineapple at Home.” It includes instructions, general information about pineapples and links for history and cultivation, propagation and even recipes.

The pineapple isn’t the only bromeliad worth knowing. Florists have ornamental bromeliads such as the Guzmania. These species have colorful flower bracts and are a favorite of interior decorators. Another popular houseplant is a member of the Tillandsia species often known as an air plant. It’s usually just a few inches tall and attached to a stone, piece of driftwood or seashell. It takes all the nutrition and moisture it needs from the air.

Bromeliads look like they belong in a conservatory, and our own Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory has them. Andy Force, horticulturist at the conservatory, said bromeliads aren’t terribly demanding, although care requirements vary according to species. Terrestrial bromeliads such as the pineapple need well-draining soil that dries out a bit between waterings. Some bromeliads need a little water in their rosettes at all times. Others, like the air plant, only need to have their leaves misted daily. Bromeliads generally don’t like direct sunlight, Force said, but they
don’t do well in shade, either — dappled light is best. They also like a bit of general-purpose fertilizer.

The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Fla., has not only a collection of bromeliads but also a ton of information about them. Florida is, after all, a place where such tropical beauties can grow outdoors without the insult of frost or injury of salt spray. Visit www.selby.org, click on Research, then Bromeliad Programs, then Bromeliad Research Center. Visit the gardens in person if you can, and don’t jump into a tree if a lizard scurries across your path. Toto, you’re not in Fort Wayne anymore.

Nancy Crowe

Master Gardener Nancy Crowe's Garden Spot column also appears in interactive format online.

Posted Tue, 02/12/2013 - 2:06 pm