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GUEST COLUMNIST: Bromeliads: Unique, Spectacular New World Plants

Queen of the Andes (Puya raimondii)

By Nancy Groves.

Bromeliads are unique, spectacular plants of the new world! Even if you didn't realize it, you know of at least one bromeliad, the pineapple (Ananas comosus). Bromeliads are members of the family Bromeliaceae, which is characterized as a monocot angiosperm family. This family is made up of three main subfamilies: Bromelioideae, Pitcairnioideae, and Tillandsioideae, though this has currently, through DNA research, been revised to eight subfamilies. There are over 3,400 species and varieties in more than fifty genera. Most come from South and Central America and the Caribbean, while a single species (Pitcairnia feliciana) somehow found its way to western Africa.

Queen of the Andes, Tiny Tillandsia, and Everything In Between

Bromeliads can be found in a wide variety of habitats—from hot, dry deserts, to moist rainforests, to cold mountainous regions. I have seen Queen of the Andes (Puya raimondii)which grow only in the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia and can be over thirty feet tall (including trunk, peduncle, and inflorescence)—and Tillandsia galore throughout Ecuador. Mexico's Chiapas area has cloud forests and deserts within miles of each other, and very different varieties grow in each habitat. Bromeliads are easy to grow and thus have been adapted into landscapes in southern California as companion plants with succulents. Their unique appearance has led bromeliads to become very important horticultural plants cultivated and hybridized worldwide. Even grocers commonly sell many of these hybrids, like the brilliant Guzmania 'Torch' and the favorite pink-flowered Aechmea fasciata.

In addition to the wide range of sizes and habitats where bromeliads can be found, there is also great variety in the color, shape, and other details. In some, it is the colorful leaves that stand out, as in Neoregelia. In others, such as as in Billbergia, it is the tall spotted, banded, or colorful cylindrical tubes, and an inflorescence that cascades down the plant as the flowers open. The bracts are brilliant on many, as on Vriesea; some bracts are more attractive than the flowers, as in some Aechmea.

Despite their differences, all bromeliad flowers have three petals and three sepals. Each plant blooms only once, but most produce offsets (or pups) at the base, along the flower stem, or from stolons, and all reproduce by seed.

Bromeliad Hydration: Tanks and Scurf

Tillandsia 'Samantha' absorbs water and nutrients through epidermal trichomes on the leaves.

Terrestrial bromeliads produce a well-developed root system which provides anchorage and is used for the absorption of water and nutrients from the soil. This group includes tank bromeliads, which commonly have leaves arranged in rosettes (e.g. Neoregelia) or tall funnels (e.g. Billbergia) that are efficient in collecting water.

Epiphytic and lithophytic bromeliads, commonly called air plants, collect water and nutrients from the atmosphere. Epiphytes grow on trees, bushes, or other plants, and lithophytes grow on rocks or cliffs; none are parasitic. Many, including most species of Tillandsia, have leaves covered in epidermal trichomes which absorb water and nutrients from the atmosphere, prevent evaporation, and reflect light to prevent burning. The trichomes take on a silver or chalky white appearance called scurf.

Fiesta de las Bromelias: May 29th to June 3rd

Come see many of these spectacular bromeliads in Mission Bay at Fiesta de las Bromelias, the World Bromeliad Conference 2018, hosted by the San Diego Bromeliad Society. The event includes a show and sales area and features a line-up of international speakers.

Nancy Groves of the San Diego Bromeliad Society has traveled in Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand searching for and studying bromeliads.

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