From towering terrestrials to dainty epiphytes, encompassing plants that bloom in brilliant colors or have jagged, sword-like succulent leaves, bromeliads make up a diverse family of plants.
Bromeliads are beloved for their bold display, but that’s not the only reason they’re so popular. Bromeliads plants are practically unkillable, plus they’re versatile. They can be grown in containers, mounted, or grown as an air plant.
Bromeliads, which are species in the Bromeliaceae family, are endemic to North, South, and Central America, and western Africa, where they grow in subtropical and tropical regions. This family also includes pineapples and, perhaps more surprisingly, Spanish moss.
The species and hybrids we grow as houseplants are short-lived, perennial monocots, but don’t worry that you’ll need to be replacing yours every five years or so after they mature.
As the parent plant blooms and then dies a few months afterward, it sends out new pups or shoots from which new plants grow. Some plants also produce seeds that can be cultivated, but since many of the houseplant species are hybrids, they might be sterile or won’t grow true.
|Botanical Name:||Bromeliaceae genera|
|Genus:||Aechmea, Billbergia, Cryptanthus, Dyckia, Guzmani, Neoregelia, Tillandsia, Vriesea|
|Native To:||North, Central, South America, and West Africa|
|Sun Exposure:||Typically bright indirect or diffused light|
|Soil Preference:||Well-draining loam or bark and moss|
|Blossom Color:||Pink, burgundy, red, orange, yellow|
|Growing Zones:||9-11 USDA|
Caring for Bromeliads:
Bromeliads can not only survive a bit of neglect, they thrive on it. The main factor is determining whether you have an epiphytic type, which is one that grows on trees and other plants, or a terrestrial type, which is one that grows on the ground in the soil. Each type has slightly different care requirements.
All bromeliads do best when temperatures are between 60-85°F, though you can find some exceptions that can tolerate colder weather. Bring your plants indoors, if you’ve been keeping them outside, once temperatures drop below 55°F.
Bromeliads prefer moderate humidity, with 40-50 percent relative humidity being ideal. Pebble trays and misting don’t increase the humidity in the long term, so if you want to increase your humidity, try grouping your plants together or use a humidifier.
As a general rule of thumb, most will thrive in a spot that has bright but indirect light. For example: out of direct light but within a few feet of an east-facing window or in front of a west-facing window covered in sheer curtains. There are a few species and hybrids that tolerate direct light and a few that need deep shade.
If your goal is to produce blossoms, botanically known as inflorescences, it’s all the more important that you read up on your particular species and understand its particular light needs. If foliage is your main concern, you have more latitude in terms of light exposure.
Even though some bromeliads are epiphytes that grow in trees anchored in debris and moss, most can adapt to life in soil. The exception is Tillandsia species, also known as air plants. These will suffer if you grow them in soil. Mount them or place them in open terrariums or on rocks, instead.
All bromeliads prefer slightly acidic soil with a pH between 5.0-6.0. Since most potting medium is neutral, mix in a handful of sphagnum moss into each pot. For the potting medium, an orchid mix is ideal since it is loose and loamy.
Watering is a little more straightforward. Most bromeliads have “cups” made up of leaf axils where they store the water that accumulates in their naturally humid environments. Your job is to keep the cup full of water, but don’t overwater the soil or substrate. Add water to the substrate only when it has dried out completely.
For types without cups, allow the soil to dry out completely between watering. It should be dry to the touch if you insert a finger into the soil, or register as “dry” on a moisture meter. Overwatering leads to root rot and disease.
Plants will need more water during the spring, summer, and fall growing season, and less during the winter when they are dormant.
The cup, or vase as it is sometimes called, should be flushed once a year to remove any salt buildup. This is especially important if you live somewhere with hard water.
Tillandsia species should be misted with water or soaked in a cup of water for 30 minutes or so once each week.
Bromeliads are light feeders and will actually suffer if you feed them frequently. If a plant appears to be doing poorly, the more likely culprit is too much water or a pest problem rather than a lack of nutrients.
Choose a mild houseplant fertilizer with something like a 3-1-2 NPK ratio and dilute it by half in a cup of water. Use the water to feed the soil (not the cup) once in the spring and again in the late summer. Don’t feed during the fall or winter, which can cause fertilizer burn.
To feed tillandsia or a mounted bromeliad, dilute the fertilizer in water as described above and use it to spray the plant.
Potting or Mounting
Bromeliads don’t need a large container to do well. They have small root systems, and too large of a pot can contribute to root rot. Orchid and succulent pots work well.
You can also mount epiphytic types using twine. Wood, hooks, or pre-made mounts are all commonly-used options. Wrap the roots in a base of sphagnum moss and attach the ball using the twine. You can also use glue, but this can result in rot where the glue touches the plant.
Mounted plants need to be watered more often, but there is a much lower risk of root rot.
Best Species and Cultivars
The most common genera for home growers are Aechmea, Billbergia, Cryptanthus, Guzmania, Neoregelia, Tillandsia, and Vriesea. As houseplants gain in popularity, additional species are becoming more common, however.
This genus is ideal for beginners because they are adaptable and tolerant. They’ll bloom without special care.
Most species, and there are over 250 in this genus, have pointed leaves with sharp spines along the edges. Most are also epiphytic and thrive in dappled or bright, indirect light.
Fasciata, common called the urn plant, is one of the most popular bromeliads out there. The silver and green striped leaves are topped with inflorescences featuring bright pink bracts and purple flowers.
Lesser known B. chantinii, or the zebra plant, has horizontal bands of green and silver with yellow vertical stripes. The inflorescence has red and orange bracts with red flowers.
The Billbergia genus is comprised of epiphytes from the region of Brazil. Most of these can tolerate a brief period of frost and need bright, indirect or dappled light.
‘Casa Blanca’ is a beginner-friendly hybrid with dark green and white mottled foliage. The inflorescence is pink with purple-blue blossoms.
B. zebrina has green and silver banding on the leaves and features a particularly large flower spike. Its inflorescence has pink bracts.
Plants in the Cryptanthus genus are known as earth stars for star-like growth pattern of the leaves. With over 1,200 species, there are many color and size options.
These species don’t feature the showy flower spikes that some others have. All the plants in this genus have petite white or pink inflorescences. Most are terrestrial plants and prefer bright, indirect or dappled light.
But remember, with 1,200 species, there is a lot of variation, and you will find exceptions. Take note of the specific needs of the species you bring home.
This genus is made up of epiphytic bromeliads that
prefer brighter light than other species, but there are exceptions. The strappy leaves come in solid and striped, as well as variegated.
Guzmania species are known for their large, colorful inflorescences, which are red, but you can also find pink. The leaves are long and strappy, usually with a spiked tip.
Lingulata is the most popular species, with its deep red flower spikes. Some cultivars have been bred with orange bracts, as well.
The plants in the Neoregelia genus hail from South America, where they grow as epiphytes in warm climates. This genus lacks the tall flower spike characteristic of some bromeliads, but their low-growing flower is every bit as colorful.
The leaves are long and strappy, but not spiked, and they often have vertical striping in white or yellow.
N. carolinae is the most commonly sold species in this genus. It has a bright red inflorescence, and the leaves that make up the cup will turn deep red when the flower is in bloom, as well. The leaves can be solid or striped.
Tillandsia species are commonly called air plants because they can grow outside of soil and don’t even require a substrate like moss. All of the plants in this genus are epiphytes or lithophytes, which means they are able to grow on rocks and not just other plants.
Most stay fairly small and have a rosette of leaves in yellow, green, gray, or a mixture of these colors.
These plants are grouped as mesic or xeric. Mesic grow in moist environments like rainforests and require higher humidity and bright, indirect light. Xeric grow in dry climates like deserts. These prefer brighter light and less humidity. Direct sun during the morning and indirect light in the afternoon is just right.
With inflorescences that grow in a brilliant spike, these plants have earned the nickname “flaming swords.” Most thrive in bright, indirect light, and most are epiphytes. Hailing from warm, tropical regions, they need to be protected from the cold.
The foliage on these plants is long and narrow, but it isn’t spiked or serrated. You can find species with banding or stripes, and the leaves can be green, yellow, or even red.
V. splendens is the most common species and features lance-like red, orange, or yellow flower spikes.
As we mentioned, bromeliads bloom one time and then they’re done. They dieback at that point. If you don’t want to say goodbye to your plant, propagate the pups.
Pups are tiny little plants that form at the base of the parent stem. These little offsets can technically form at any point in the plant’s growth cycle, but it’s far more common once they’ve set flowers.
Leave the pups attached to the parent plant as long as possible so that they have time to mature and develop enough to survive on their own. Once the parent starts to turn brown, it’s time to remove the pups.
Take a clean, sharp knife and remove the pups, cutting as close to the parent stem as possible.
Place the pup with the bottom side down in a four-inch pot filled with potting soil. You won’t leave the pup in this soil forever, but it’s dense enough to encourage the new plant to develop a strong root system.
Because the young plant won’t have many, if any, roots, you might need to support it with chopsticks until it has developed a bit further.
Place the potted pups in the same kind of light that they require when they’re mature and keep the potting mixture wet but not soggy. The soil should feel like a well-wrung-out sponge and should crumble if you roll it in your hands. If it sticks together, it’s too wet.
Once the pup forms roots, which you can determine by wiggling or gently tugging the plant, it will resist. That’s when you can plant it in an orchid medium or mount it. Reduce watering at that point.
Common Problems, Pests, and Diseases
Compared to other houseplants, bromeliads are usually pest and disease free. Root rot may occur if you overwater.
Otherwise, look for the big three common houseplant pests: aphids, mealybugs, and scale. All three are sapsucking insects that survive by feeding on plants with their mouthparts. If you notice any leaf yellowing or general malaise, examine your plant closely for signs of pests.
Mealybugs and scale tend to stay in one area, usually in slightly hidden spots like leaf joints. Aphids move more quickly and congregate on the undersides of the leaves.
All three can be treated with insecticidal soap, though mealybugs are better treated by wiping them with a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol. This removes their protective coating. Then you can spray them with insecticidal soap