December 30, 2009 at 1:48 p.m.
Bromeliads are relatives of the pineapple and come from the tropical and subtropical regions of South America. They are very popular in Europe, but have not received the attention they deserve here in the United States. They are attractive, easy to care for, and relatively pest-free. Their flowers last for months with modest light requirements and because they are slow growing they won't grow out of their container or location.
There are two major categories of bromeliads, depending where they are found in their native habitat. Terrestrials grow directly in the ground, which is no different from most plants. Pineapple and earth stars are examples of terrestrials bromeliads. As houseplants they perform best in bright sunlight with warm temperatures that fall no lower than sixty degrees at night.
The other category is the epiphytic bromeliads, which are very unusual in that they are tree dwellers in nature, perching on branches, hanging on by means of roots that cling to the bark. They wrap their roots around the tree for support rather than nourishment. To feed they trap rainfall, insects and plant debris in a vase or reservoir created by their rosette of overlapping leathery leaves. Any organic matter trapped in the water-filled reservoir gradually decomposes, providing nutrients that are directly absorbed by the leaves. They also have small scales on the leaves to absorb moisture from rainfall, fog, and high humidity.
Since we can't provide the humidity they are accustomed to, proper watering is needed to offset our dry indoor conditions. The soil should stay slightly moist at all times but it's not necessary to water directly. Many bromeliads collect water in their reservoirs formed by leaf clusters. Fill the reservoir three-quarters of the way to the top, preferably with rainwater or distilled water, and dampen the roots at the same time. Choose a porous potting soil that allows water to run right through, rather than something spongy that holds a lot of moisture.
They're accustomed to only moderately bright light levels because the light they receive in the wild is often filtered through other branches higher in the tree. This means an east-facing window should provide adequate light. Bromeliads don't need a lot of nutrients. Feed the plant by adding a little dilute liquid fertilizer (one-half strength or less) to water to the soil. Once a month in the spring and summer should be fine if the plant receives good light, and less is needed if the light levels are minimal.
Bromeliads are shipped to garden centers and sold already in bloom. If possible, pick plants with flowers that are still developing rather than fully expanded. They will bloom for a long time and when they fade, some will die, but by then they will have produced offshoots called "pups". These offshoots may be potted up and brought into bloom, and the cycle should continue.