The bromeliad family is huge, encompassing 46 genera and around 2,700 species, and so offers great choice. However, many retailers restrict themselves to selling two genera - Guzmania and Vriesea.
It may be hard to know where to start when buying in bromeliads. There are the terrestrial types, such as the hardy Puya or the pineapple Ananas comosus. Then there are desert dwellers, which grow on rocks.
Finally, there are the epiphytes, which grow with the support of trees and other structures including the increasingly popular air plants that take moisture and nutrition directly from the atmosphere. The best known of these - Spanish moss or Tillandsia useneoides - is found draped across trees in the humid states of the south eastern US and down through South America. In cultivation, Spanish moss is used to filter light in warm greenhouses and as dressing material for mounted orchids or hanging baskets.
Bromeliads are tropical or subtropical so are generally frost tender, needing at least 10-13 degsC, and are sold as pot plants. They may be marketed under trade names or referred to simply as bromeliads. Some hardier members of the family, including Puya, can be planted in rockeries or raised beds in milder areas.
It is mainly the epiphytic species that are sold in the planteria so they need to be potted into very porous mixes - usually made up of high levels of grit, sand and crocks as well as peat, bark or leaf mould. Excess moisture in the containers will cause plants' bases to rot. Also, they should be planted with the base of the leaves at ground level or slightly above. Air plants are usually fixed onto driftwood or cork bark and wrapped with spaghnum moss.
Once home, potted bromeliads prefer a warm, well-lit location out of direct sunlight and draughts. Watering needs to be done carefully, using soft or rain water if possible. Some genera are more exacting than others but as a general rule for "vase" types, water regularly into the vase and pot during the growing season (April to October), less during the winter. Air plants should be sprayed daily when temperatures are high, reducing to once or twice a week when temperatures drop to 13 degsC. A low-nitrogen fertiliser can be added to the water every three to four weeks.
Bromeliad rosettes die off after flowering, but offsets are produced around it. These should be allowed to grow until they have reached half the size of parent plant, then removed with some roots and potted up. After a year they should be ready to flower.
One trick to stimulate flowering is to put a ripe apple into the centre of the plant, cover the plant with a plastic bag and leave it for three weeks. A new flower is likely to appear in two to four months.
WHAT THE SPECIALISTS SAY
Paul Thomas, partner, House of Plants, East Sussex "Guzmania and Vriesea are the two genera commonly available through garden centres. They are pretty easy plants with long-lasting flowers. Guzmania lingulata Award of Garden Merit (AGM), also known as 'Scarlet Star' is available everywhere, but there are others worth looking for, like the fantastic G. conifera and G. 'Cezanne'.
"Then there are the 'urn' types, such as Aechmea. They are very popular with us, particularly A. 'Blue Rain', but not so much in garden centres. We also sell a white-flowered Vriesea called 'Snowflake', which has an incredibly long-lasting flower - ours flowered for nine months.
"Bromeliads make really excellent house plants and provide so much colour, especially at this time of year. I encourage people to buy them by saying they cost the same as a bunch of flowers but will last a lot longer. They bring the look of the rainforest to your home. And they take a lot of abuse - they are easier than orchids.
"The plants bought in garden centres tend to be thrown away after flowering but we recommend customers remove the spent mother flower and grow on the five to seven pups that have developed. It looks more natural anyway."
Luisa Isaacs, partner, Key Essentials, Dorset "Tillandsia is our speciality. Their appeal is they don't require any soil to survive - they get everything they need from the environment. They are great little plants, providing they get what they need in balance - air, light and humidity.
"As with all houseplants, you may need to experiment to find the right spot in the house. They do well in bathrooms because of the high humidity but there must be good light as well. They should not be given too much water, especially if they are in a spot with little light, because they will rot. They need the chance to dry out between watering.
"In garden centres, air plants should be sprayed over at least once a week. In centrally heated homes it may be necessary to spray them up to three times a week.
"I like T. 'Tectorum', a desert plant that hardly needs any looking after. If it is watered too much it becomes less attractive - the little hairs get stuck to one another. The tiny plants T. ionantha 'Rubra' and T. ionantha scaposa are also lovely and easy to look after, but they need good air circulation."
Emma Green, group planteria manager, Golden Acres Garden Centre and Nursery Group, Dorset "Bromeliads are reasonably fussy as far as care is concerned. They need soft or rain water and need to be kept at an even temperature and in a stable environment. We sell a reasonable amount of them, though I think they are less popular than in the 1990s when there was quite a fad for them. I think now they are popular with florists and for trendy, urban areas.
"In our garden centres they are placed in the exotics section. During a recession customers are going for what they know so they are not buying from that area so much.
"We get our plants from Holland and Denmark. I prefer the Danish plants at the moment because they are grown a bit rougher. The Dutch plants can be a bit soft."
SPECIES AND CULTIVARS
- Aechmeas have upright vivid flower spikes, often with colourful long-lasting bracts, which may be followed by berries. Most of the species have spiny, toothed leaves that are arranged to form a central "tank". Most cultivars are bred from A. fasciata.
- A. fasciata 'Primera' is a popular variety commercially because its smooth leaf margins make it easier to work with. It bears a large flower spike in winter and the flowers are deep pink, holding their colour as the plant ages. Height, 40-50cm.
- A. 'Blue Rain' has rare blue flowers, which contrast against the white and purple colouring on the red flower spike. The 40cm spike lasts for up to three to four months. It is the second best selling Aechmea at the Dutch auctions.
- A. orlandiana has maroon-spotted or banded leaves below a red and yellow flower head.
- Billbergia pyramidalis AGM has leaves that are sometimes flushed purple. Bears orange-pink flowers that can become tipped with kingfisher-blue at maturity. Increases readily.
- B. nutans is also known as the friendship plant because rosettes around the mother plant can be twisted off and rooted readily, then given away as presents.
- Cryptanthus bivittatus AGM is a terrestrial bromeliad with a flattened rosette. The leaves are wavy, finely serrated and dark green with two lighter green longitudinal stripes.
- Guzmania is the most developed genus commercially. The flower spikes and their bracts are available in many colours, including white, yellow, pink, red, purple, pink with white or purple with red. They have white or yellow flowers.
- G. 'Bolero' has a flower spike made up of white bracts, contrasting dramatically with the mid-green leaves. Height, 30-50 cm.
- G. 'Ritmo' is a compact bromeliad, with light green leaves and orange and yellow bracts. Height, 15-20cm.
- G. 'Torch' is one of the bromeliads also referred to as Scarlet Star commercially. It has a short-lived bright red and yellow inflorescence emerging from a rosette of stiff, dark green leaves. Height, 50-60 cm.
- Tillandsia useneoides or Spanish moss has thread-like leaves linked in strands up to 3m long and covered in minute scales or trichomes that allow the plant to absorb moisture and nutrients from the air.
- T. cyanea AGM has a rosette of fine green leaves from which emerges a flattened flower spike made up of pink bracts, tipped with short-lived purple flowers.
- Vriesea can be divided into two types. The "urn" or "vase" types that are large plants with tall rosettes of often banded leaves and striking, elongated inflorescences; or the more compact types, with even green leaves and branching flowers.
- V. splendens 'Splenriet' is a very popular variety that has a tall, thin scarlet red flower spike and dark and pale green banded leaves. Up to 55cm tall.
- V. 'Astrid' is a relatively new cultivar, with soft red, arrow-shaped flowers and curling green leaves. The numerous flower spikes last up to four months. Height, 40-45 cm.
- V. 'Elan' has a red branched inflorescence above a rosette of mid-green leaves. Height, 30-60cm.