How to Grow Bromeliads
One day at work, one of my coworkers was asking me a plant question (I’m notorious as the go-to guy for plant questions), and when I finished advising him, he proceeded to tell me a story of his mother’s bromeliad that was languishing. It just wasn’t doing well, so he plucked the plant away from his mother, brought it into work, and gave it to an agreeable co-worker who then placed it in his office to care for the plant. He then proceeded to tell me that the plant was supposed to have water in its central cup, which his mother didn’t know, and it has been doing well ever since in its new home. Well……duh. I could have told him that. And this brings me to my blog post on how to grow bromeliads! Despite their very exotic good-looks, they are easy to take care of once you know what they like. I know, I know…I say that about almost everything. But I really mean it. Keep reading and if you follow my guidance, you will be able to grow these beautiful plants too.
Bromeliads in Nature
Before I go into growing bromeliads at home, it is always very helpful to know where and how these plants grow in nature. My post will focus on the “Urn Plant,” or Aechmea fasciata, but the care instructions are the same for all bromeliads. The Urn Plant just happens to be my favorite! These plants are native to the jungles of Brazil and they are epiphytes, much like many orchids. Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants (most commonly on other trees), and they obtain their moisture and nutrients from the humid air, rain and organic debris that falls on them. How does this translate to your indoor growing requirements? Keep reading and I’ll tell you.
Selecting a Plant
I was recently at a garden center and they had some beautiful Urn Plants.
Notice the beautiful pink flower bract. The bract is NOT the actual flower. If you look closely, you’ll see the purple flowers starting to emerge. The flowers themselves won’t last too long, but the pink bract will last for a few months! If you have a choice, select a plant where the bract isn’t fully grown yet and the purple flowers are just starting to emerge. This will ensure that you will have a longer time to enjoy the bract and flowers at home.
Growing Tips for Bromeliads
After you bring your bromeliad home, make sure you place it somewhere where you can enjoy its stunning beauty! Follow my tips below for light, temperature, water, and fertilizer requirements. If you buy one Urn Plant, I will also show you in the next section how to propagate this beauty and get them to rebloom so that you will always have an Urn Plant (or two…or three) at all times in your home! You can always give extras away to friends…
- Light – These plants like plenty of bright, indirect light. You can also grow these in a bright Northern window. If all you have is a West or South exposure window, then make sure to diffuse any bright sun with a shear curtain or blinds so that the leaves do not scorch. I have 3 of these plants growing in an Eastern window. This means that they get some morning sunlight which is fine. I have them growing on a large rack with orchids and other plants, so they really get dappled sunlight which is perfect for them. If you look closely, you can see my three Urn Plants in the bottom two shelves.
- Re-potting: The good news is that when you bring your bromeliad home, assuming it is fully grown specimen, you will never need to repot it! In fact…what a lot of people don’t know is that after a bromeliad blooms, the mother plant will start to languish and die a slow, slow death (sad right???). But the sliver lining on the cloud is that while the mother plant is dying, it will send out “pups” or baby plants at the base! More on this later when I talk about how to propagate your baby Urn Plants. And they’re cute as hell…
- Water: Don’t let your bromeliad potting media dry out completely. On the other end however, make sure that it’s not soggy either. Remember, these things grow on trees in nature so all the extra water just drains away. If you have your plant siting in a saucer to catch water, or if the plastic pot is slipped into a decorative pot with no holes, please ensure that it is not sitting in water for an extended period of time otherwise the plant will rot. Another very important fact that you must do is ensure that there is water in the central cup at all times! Remember my co-worker’s mother’s plant? Yeah, don’t do what she did.
- Fertilizer: In nature, as it rains, water will collect in the central rosette of leaves. Any organic matter, bugs, etc, will also fall in the cup and help to nourish the plant. In the house though, unless you want a flourishing cesspool of rotting vegetation and bugs, I would suggest simply using one drop of liquid fertilizer into the cup every time you refill the cup. At least once a month or so, to make sure that the water doesn’t smell and go stagnant, gently tip the plant over to empty the water out of the rosette and fill it back up with fresh water. Use tepid water…remember these are tropical plants from the rainforest. Any balanced houseplant fertilizer will do.
- Temperature: These plants need warm conditions to do their best. Average indoor temperatures are fine. If you have an especially cold room, it may not be the best spot for them. Ensure that nighttime temperatures are at least 55F (13C) and daytime temperatures should be a minimum of 65F (18C). Of course, they prefer warmer.
Propagating Your Urn Plant
Here comes the fun part! As I mentioned, once the Mamma Urn Plant is past her prime, the pink bract will start to look ugly and unsightly. Just clip it off at this point and keep up your normal care. You’ll notice that the plant will SLOWLY start to look more ragged and that’s normal! The mother plant will die very slowly after it blooms, but then you should see baby Urn Plants emerged from the base. Each plant will bloom only once. I happened to be at a garden center and saw this very phenomenon on their clearance rack so snapped a photo. (I was tempted to buy it but I already had separated 3 pups from my own plant a couple years ago).
Note the two pups at the base of the plant. You COULD just leave the pups there and then just cut off the mother plant once it is dead and unsightly, but I like the shape and form of a single Urn Plant in one pot.
All you need to do is wait until the baby plants are about half the size of the mother plant and then you can separate them. I will tell you how I’ve done it in the past and some of you might get a little squeamish, especially those of you that are always scared to trim anything off of a plant. You’ll want each baby plant to have a chunk of the root system. In my case, I had 3 baby plants that I separated.
Now on to the “surgery” that I want you to perform. What I did was took a good pair of pruners and cut the mother plant right off at the base. *GASP* I know. Get over it and just do it and throw her in your compost pile. Then I took the whole plant out of its pot, and with a thin saw or knife, I carefully sawed the root ball to separate each pup. Don’t get too close to the baby plants because you don’t want to saw them off! Carefully saw away until each pup has a piece of the root ball.
After this point, just pot the babies up! I used 5 inch clay pots for mine, and they will remain in that pot for their whole life. Since they are epiphytes, the extra porosity from the clay pots offer more oxygen to the roots. Not to say that you can’t use plastic pots though. Just water more carefully and don’t let the roots get too soggy. Be extra attentive especially in the beginning to not overwater. At the same time, they should never get fully dried out.
As far as the soil to use, bromeliads actually aren’t too picky with potting media. You can either buy a bromeliad soil mix, or if you’re like me, you can just make your own because it’s easy and they’re not picky. You can use a 50/50 mix or ordinary potting soil and orchid bark mix. The bark mix will help to provide a looser soil. You can also take ordinary potting soil and add perlite and some orchid bark mix. Or even 50/50 potting soil and perlite. Some plants are even planted in sphagnum moss. The bottom line is that they are not too picky, and just need excellent drainage and should be allowed to dry out a bit, but not completely between waterings.
After you’ve potted up your pups, just follow the care I’ve outlined in the Growing Tips section and enjoy! I know what you’re now thinking though…so I’ll jump right to it.
Getting Your Bromeliad to Bloom
I believe my baby plants are now about 2 years old if my memory is still working…and they are a nice size! Left on their own, they may take 4-5 years or so to bloom. However, if you’re sick of waiting I have a trick for you. Granted, you need to wait until the plant is a good size. Wait until each baby plant grows to the size of her (deceased) mother.
What I want you to do now, is take your Urn Plant, empty the water out of its central cup and place it inside a big, clear plastic bag with no holes (or a light colored one but make sure it is see-through). Then place a couple apples inside the bag (you read that correctly…). Tie up the bag and let the plant stay in the bag with the two apples for about a week. Keep it out of direct sun, but try keeping it in a location with bright indirect light. The apples give off ethylene gas as they ripen, and this will help trigger blooming. After about a week, take the plant out of the bag, fill the central cup with water, and resume normal care. Approximately 2-3 months or so after you do this, you should see a flower bract emerge from the central cup! This will work for any bromeliad. Did you know that pineapples are bromeliads too? I grew a pineapple once from the top of a grocery store pineapple. I forced it to bloom using this method and grew my very own pineapple! Cool huh?
So if you don’t have any Urn Plants, I urge you to go buy one now! They are a beautiful compliment to your houseplant collection and with proper care, you will never be without an Urn Plant! There are also many other beautiful types of bromeliads that you can easily grow in your home if you prefer another variety.