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Bromeliad: 1st Among Bloomers That Last

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I began collecting bromeliads almost by accident one summer when somebody offered me one that wasn’t flowering. Though the plant was unremarkable with its sturdy light green and silver leaves, I never say no to strays, so I took it in and stuck it under my plum tree.

As I approached the tree one morning that fall, I was delighted to see that a stunning pink flower had risen out of those unassuming leaves.

Since then, I’ve added several bromeliads to my garden, including tillandsias, which hang from my trees.

Uncommon and even rare just a few years ago, bromeliads are quickly gaining popularity. Most nurseries carry at least one or two varieties, and you can sometimes find them in the supermarket. They’ve been traditionally grown as an indoor houseplant and make great holiday gifts, but most varieties also thrive outdoors in our mild climate.

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“Gardeners are discovering that they can’t go wrong with bromeliads because they’re undemanding plants that can flower for as long as 16 weeks,” says Michael Kent, who with his family runs Kent’s Bromeliad Nursery Inc., a wholesale nursery in Vista.

“There are also a huge number of color and leaf variations in bromeliads,” he says. “The plants are structurally very different looking than anything else in the garden. They really give the landscape an exotic, tropical look.”

Bromeliads are also very easy to care for. They need water only every 10 days, and they don’t require fertilizing.

Bromeliads are native to South America but tolerant of many climates. There are a number of varieties, the most famous being the pineapple. Most are epiphytic by nature, meaning they like to grow suspended from trees or other vertical objects, though there are many types that can be grown in soil. Tillandsias thrive suspended from trees, while others do well in containers. There are bromeliads with tall, elegant flowers, such as the guzmanias, and others with colorful leaves, such as the neoregelias.

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Bromeliads tend to bloom in spring and fall outdoors, but you can find them flowering in stores throughout the year.

Take home a bromeliad now, and it will continue to bloom for several weeks--maybe months--indoors or outdoors. Once the bloom fades, that portion of the plant will eventually die, but not before it creates a whole new plant that is ready to bloom.

In nature, bromeliads receive nourishment from the air or from liquid and debris that collect in the cup that forms at the center of their leaves. It is from this cup that each plant’s showy flowers usually emerge.

Those who grow bromeliads tend to do so because of the unusual look they give to the garden.

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Archeologist Sylvia Meluzin of Placentia collects tillandsias and neoregelias because her odd-shaped garden calls for vertical landscaping.

“The idea of growing plants on trees and other suspended objects really struck my fancy,” says Meluzin, a member of the Orange County Bromeliad Society. “The silhouette of an epiphytic plant is different depending on the angle from which you view it. My hanging bromeliads give the garden a sculptural, three-dimensional look.”

To succeed, keep the following tips in mind.

* Water properly. Bromeliads are accustomed to jungle life where it rains and then dries out before it rains again. Water the flower cup and soil and then don’t water again until the flower cup is dry, Kent says.

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“Although keeping water in the flower cup at all times is sometimes suggested, it’s not a good idea because it will rot out the flower,” he says. “Over-watering will cause the flowers and leaves to brown.”

* Potted bromeliads need excellent drainage or they will probably rot.

* Protect delicate varieties from excessive rain. Though most bromeliads can withstand wet weather as long as they have good drainage, some (such as Tillandsia tectorum) will rot in successive downpours, says Meluzin, who suggests covering this hanging plant with plastic after a first rain.

* Provide proper lighting. Most bromeliads require filtered sun all day. Direct sun will usually yellow the leaves and brown the flowers.

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* Protect epiphytic bromeliads from dry, dehydrating weather. To compensate for water loss, mist twice a day during really hot summer days or Santa Ana winds.

* Opt for containers. Though some bromeliads can be grown in the ground, they require excellent drainage or they will quickly rot. Most don’t need a lot of room and grow well in pots or hanging from trees.

* Repot when there is no lateral room for new plants.

* Use plastic 20-pound-weight fishing twine to suspend tillandsias from trees. When the tree branches grow and the twine becomes too snug, remove and reattach. Tillandsias can also be hung from hooks or other free-standing vertical objects.

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* Though bromeliads don’t require pruning, old flower stalks and foliage may be removed when they become unsightly.

* Neglect them a little. “Bromeliads do best when you don’t love them to death,” Kent says.

* The Orange County Bromeliad Society meets every third Saturday of the month (except in December) from 10 a.m. to noon at 1621 E. Lambert Road, La Habra. (562) 943-9829.


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