Indoor tropical plants bring to mind the promise of warm weather even in the midst of winter, and none is quite as easy to care for as the colorful bromeliad family. Although a single plant typically only lives a few years, it will sprout “pups,” or new plantlets, from the sides or center of the plant after flowering. The bromeliad group includes over 3,000 species of epiphytic plants, which use roots only as an anchor and not for nutrient or water absorption. Rather, they collect water and nutrients through other structures on the plant, making them surprisingly drought resistant and an excellent choice for indoor growing.
Mostly native to South America, bromeliads are not at all cold hardy and can only survive outdoors in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 10 through 12. Most types of bromeliads typically only live for two to five years even with ideal care, but continue to grow from new sprouts created after flowering. Bromeliads like bright, indirect light, and those grown under intense light will decline faster than those with proper lighting. Common species of bromeliads in nurseries include scarlet star (Guzmania spp.), vase plant (Aechmea spp.) and vriesea (Vriesea spp.), three of the earliest species collected by European explorers.
With proper care and attention, a bromeliad can technically live indefinitely, though the original plant will fade and give way to new plants that grow in its place. From the time a sprout appears on the side or near the bromeliad’s crown, it can take a year or more for that sprout to mature to flowering size, and flowers can persist for two to six months. Pups usually appear after flowers begin to fade, but they can also occur during and just prior to flowering. Once the flower dies, the main plant also begins a slow decline that lasts a year or more. The flower structure itself blocks new leaf growth, so any attempts to preserve the mother plant will be in vain.
Care After Flowering
Clip withered flowers from the center of the plant to preserve the remaining foliage for as long as possible, which allows the new bromeliad pups time to grow large enough to transplant. Pups can be removed at any time as long as they have roots, but usually perform better when they grow to half the size of the original plant before transplant. Be sure that all parts of the bromeliad have water in the cup-like structures at the leaf bases. Bromeliads should be planted shallowly in a lightweight potting mixture consisting of equal parts peat, tree bark and sand or perlite, which allows plenty of airflow around the roots, yet retains adequate moisture.
Encouraging New Blooms
In the nursery trade, young bromeliads are regularly treated with ethylene gas to boost the plant into flowering stage. Apples naturally release ethylene gas, and the old home trick of putting unripe produce in a bag with an apple will also work on bromeliads. Home growers can mimic ethylene treatment by enclosing a slice of apple with a pup and then covering the pot with a plastic bag for three weeks. Flowering usually begins soon after, with another flower spike present on the plant within eight to 13 weeks.