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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Bowled over by bromeliads

Growing plants isn’t an easy job. Professional growers face all the trials of any business – from an ever-changing marketplace to personnel management – but then have one special challenge: The products are living plants that must be kept alive and attractive. Many things can happen to them – human error, insect pests, diseases, water quality problems – any of which can prove damaging or fatal. But nothing is as important as the weather.

In the northeastern U.S. we deal with severe weather sometimes, and it can be inconvenient or temporarily threatening. But a plant grower’s daily work and sometimes the fate of the business are ruled by weather. The Easter lily crop and its portion of the seasonal sales can suffer because the sun came on too strong in March – or it stayed dark all month. The poinsettia crop requires a specific temperature range in greenhouses (no matter how extreme the outside cold) and the basket annuals need steady sunlight in spring. And then true disasters such as massive snow, ice or wind storms could knock down greenhouses and interfere with the crops that were planned – as occurred for some Western New York growers last winter.

Easier down South?

Relatively then, it might seem that growing plants in Florida would be a joyful business. They have sunlight year round and never a blizzard – easier, right? Wrong. Our own tropical plants expert Kathryn O’Donnell (Botanicus Interior Landscaping) was a grower in Florida between 1974 and 1989 and told me: “A grower there watches and worries about the weather all day, every day, for 365 days of the year. During my time we dealt with hurricanes, at least one tornado, a variable water table, the risk of freezes, and even fires.” (Pine needles from burning trees travel on the breeze, she explained, and burn holes in your shade cloth. Who would think of that?)

My tour host during the TPIE (Tropical Plants Industry Exhibition) was Sylvia Gordon, of Landscapes by Sylvia Gordon, also a grower for most of her life. Like Kathryn, she said weather concerns them “24/7.” Then she added: “But it’s all peanuts compared to what Hurricane Andrew did here in 1992. It came ashore right here in Homestead (heart of the growing area) with sustained 150 mph winds. Almost all our businesses were wiped out.”

Agricultural losses were more than a billion dollars in the southern Florida/Miami area. The Everglades lost one quarter of its trees. In Dade County 63,000 homes and even the Air Force base (built for 200 mph winds) were destroyed. It was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Yet many people today don’t even know it happened.

In Florida I saw ferns and palms, orchids and hibiscus, and tropical fruits, well-tended in their fields or shade houses – more stories to come. For now, my dreams are populated with just one very large plant family called bromeliads.

Bullis Bromeliads

It’s probably inevitable for a plant geek to fall in love with the plant family Bromeliaceae. It can be a short-lived love affair if the plant person can’t supply enough light and humidity, but they are great landscape plants in tropical regions and many are fine conservatory plants or houseplants (given great light). There are 56 genera, divided into some 3,000 species, and countless hybrids. The family includes pineapples (Ananas comosus) and Spanish moss – one of several Tillandsias or air plants which you may see draped on tree branches. Most of the bromeliads I coveted at Bullis Bromeliads (Princeton, Fla.) were in the genera Aechmea, Billbergia, Guzmania or Neoregelia.

The classification can fog a person’s brain quite quickly here, but you probably know a bromeliad when you see it: fleshy leaves and foliage that forms a rosette. The most important distinguishing feature is “trichomes” – gray scales on the leaves that help the plants absorb moisture and nutrients. The leaves feature bold patterns in bright colors – especially vibrant in strong sunlight. The rosette holds water, which serves in nature as a source of moisture and protection for hundreds of animal species including tree frogs and salamanders. The flowers are among the most varied and dramatic of all plant groups. In countless ways this is one cool plant family.

I do remember my first bromeliad well. It was a gift from a true plantsman (whose name has slipped away), but I remember his words: “Let’s see what kind of a horticulturist you are – if you can get this to flower again.”

It was Aechmea fasciata. I killed it – by overwatering. I learned that you shouldn’t keep the cup filled with water, and you should only water the plant after the top inches of soil are quite dry. Like most bromeliads and other succulent plants, they expect drought periods between watering. Too much water is deadly. Bright light is essential, and they require supplemental humidity in heated houses.

According to my guide at Bullis Bromeliads, everyone asks how to get the plant to rebloom. He explained it this way: Many people cut the whole plant back after the flower is finished, but that’s wrong because the pups (baby plants) don’t have a chance. Just cut off the flower stalk and let the mother plant diminish slowly, the pups still growing on her side. As the mother fades away you can start the new pups in their own fresh potting mixture.

I also asked the Bullis family tour leader about his growing challenges. No surprise. He told me about their catastrophe during the 1992 hurricane.

“Otherwise – only one real pest,” he said. He pointed to the pots suspended in netting or mesh so that the pots touched no solid surface.

“We do this to outsmart the slugs! The only other thing isn’t a pest but kind of cute: Little tree frogs sometimes hide in the cups so we have to dump them before they leap out in somebody’s car or truck,” he said.

My appreciation for all growers has only increased as I travel. North or South, it’s not an easy business and I’ll never quibble about the cost of a plant again.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.