– the tropics in your home. Photograph: Alamy
I fell in love with bromeliads, the pineapple family, at the same time I discovered the Brazilian psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes, the musician Caetano Veloso and the Tropicália art movement. I ended up sharing a flat with Kew’s resident bromeliad expert, Marcelo Sellaro, and my world was infused with the exotic and the flamboyant, brilliant neon hues and a thumping bossa nova beat. You wouldn’t imagine the tropical would transport to your home, but bromeliads are a surprisingly easy slice of the rainforest.
They are a varied family, found mostly in neotropical areas of the Americas. There are terrestrial types such as the pineapple (Ananas comosus), and epiphytes that grow on other plants, mostly trees, either clinging on or hanging off them. The most well known as houseplants are epiphytes with urns (also known as tanks). The plant wraps its rosette of large leaves so tightly around the base of a tree that they create a water reservoir. Their roots are merely there to anchor it to the tree; they feed themselves via hairs on the leaves, known as trichomes.
The urn acts as a permanent, nutrient-rich reservoir (in the wild, it fills with rotting leaves and debris from the canopy above) from which the leaves sup up their requirements. It also acts as a miniature pond, a tiny ecosystem for tropical animals such as tree frogs, crabs and salamanders. These tend to be hybrids of scarlet star (Guzmania lingulata), the urn plant (aechmea species), the flaming sword (Vriesea splendens) or the blushing bromeliad (Neoregelia carolinae). If growing urn types, it is vital to keep them topped up with water: from the tap is fine, just never let it dry out.
Despite being epiphytic, many bromeliads are sold in pots. Water the roots sparingly in a pot, but mist the leaves often, particularly if they’re in a room with the central heating on high. Remember, these plants are from the rainforest, so they thrive in high humidity. A sunny bathroom, a bright windowsill near the kettle: they’ll lap up such conditions. But in a dark, hot, dry room they will wither and die.
Bromeliad flowers tend to be small and delicate, but they are borne on brilliantly-coloured bracts that persist long after the blooms fade. These bracts can be electric blue, bright neon pink or orange. Once the bract dies, so, eventually, does the mother plant. However, you should have numerous offsets, known as pups, surrounding the mother. Once the pups are half the size of the mother plant, cut her off and leave the rest room to expand.
Most bromeliads readily sold are hybrids created by Dutch breeders. If you get hooked, be bold and seek out the true species (eBay is your best bet), such as Aechmea orlandiana, Guzmania wittmackii and Neoregelia burle-marxii, because this lot truly do represent a slice of the rainforest.
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