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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.


Bromeliads are members of a plant family containing over 3000 species. They are native to the Southern U.S., plus Central and South America. Columbus introduced bromeliads to Europe when he brought pineapple back the New World. Every wealthy European desired this delectable tropical fruit. To date, no other bromeliad has been cultivated as a food crop. However, several, such as Spanish moss, have been used as fiber crops. Spanish moss in particular was once commonly used to stuff furniture.

Pineapple stems have also been used commercially as a source of bromelain, a protein-digesting enzyme used in meat tenderizer. This enzyme is also present in fresh pineapple, which is why gelatin prepared with fresh pineapple fails to gel. Bromelain breaks protein bonds that would otherwise solidify the gelatin.

Most cultivated bromeliads are kept for ornamental purposes. They look widely different, and grow anywhere from soil to thin air, but in fact they share some basic characteristics. Their leaves are borne in a rosette, often forming a central cup that serves as a water reservoir. All bromeliads have some form of trichomes, or tiny hairs on each leaf which increase the leaf's surface area and ability to absorb water. Trichomes also help diffuse the hot sun in their tropical habitats.

Reproducing a given species' natural conditions as close as possible will naturally produce the best results when growing bromeliads. As a rule, most bromeliads will benefit from a well-drained potting mix, but terrestrial species can tolerate a little more moisture than epiphytic types (often sold as "air plants") Bromeliad Society International ( suggests the following rule of thumb for light levels: "soft leaf–soft light, hard leaf–hard light". In other words, a soft, flexible, often spineless bromeliad is probably native to the softly lit understory of the forest, while a spiky, stiff, spiny bromeliad probably is home to bright, but still filtered light.

Most bromeliads flower only once on a central stalk, or scape. They then produce new side shoots, or "pups". A useful trick for coaxing a bromeliad to flower is to enclose it in a bag containing a ripe apple. The apple releases ethylene gas which acts as a chemical signal to the bromeliad, triggering it to produce a flower.

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