Steve Asbell is an illustrator, blogger and the author of Plant by Numbers: 50 Houseplant Combinations to Decorate your Space. He is currently turning his Northeast Florida garden into a tropical patch of paradise and you can read more about his adventures on his blog, therainforestgarden.com.

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Cold-Hardy Bromeliads
by Steve Asbell       #Plant Profile   #Unusual   #Winter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Cold-tolerant bromeliads can be a bit harder to find than those sold as houseplants, but the effort pays off.”

 


Florida is often portrayed as a magical land of never-ending summer without wintery woes of frosts and freezes, but despite what your friends saw on their vacation to Orlando or the Keys, those of us in the northern half of the peninsula get freezes every winter. Winters here aren’t a walk in the rainforest, but you can still create the illusion with cold-tolerant versions of your favorite tropical plants.

Few plants recreate the look of a rain forest more readily than bromeliads and despite their tropical appearance, anyone in Florida can get away with growing a handful of the hardiest species in their gardens. They look great just about anywhere; whether showcased as an accent, massed as a ground cover or grown vertically on a tree stump or hanging baskets. With their cups filled with collected rainwater and the occasional tree frog, they can complete the picture of tropical abundance; especially if planted alongside evergreen shrubs and ground covers, cold tolerant palms and winter annuals.

This list is by no means exhaustive, so think of it as a brief introduction to frost hardy species, hybrids and selections that can be grown throughout the state. If you’re trying to determine a bromeliad’s cold-tolerance, here are some good rules of thumb: Hybrids involving cold hardy species are often hardy themselves, and bromeliads along the fringe of the South American tropics are likely to take more cold as well. For example, many of the toughest species grown in north Florida are from the Mata Atlantica rain forest that spills over from Brazil into Argentina and Paraguay. An obvious way to see what will grow in your area is to see what is already there. One of my toughest plants was a Billbergia hoelscheriana spotted among overgrown weeds on an old abandoned lot.
 

Billbergia hybrids • Aechmea species • Aechmea apocalyptica


The Aechmea genus is an excellent starting point with a vast variety of impressive inflorescences atop fountains of lush and leathery foliage. The aptly named matchstick plant’s (Aechmea gamosepala) tall scape of pink ‘match sticks’ with tips of blue blooms have made it a favorite passalong plant all the way along the southern coast from Texas to South Carolina. Many of the other hardy Aechmea are spectacular variations on that theme, such as the densely clustered matchsticks of Aechmea cylindrata or the orange and gray ones of Aechmea apocalyptica.

For a large and imposing specimen, try growing Aechmea distichantha. It’s bold enough to stop visitors in their tracks, and when planted near a window it’s spiny enough to stop burglars in theirs as well. Some other hardy Aechmea species include A. winkleri, A. blumenavii, A. kertesziae, A. calyculata and A. caudata.

Every now and then I see the narrow leaves and pendant blooms of a Billbergia colony hanging from an oak tree in old neighborhoods, proving their resilience to cold and drought over the years. Billbergia nutans, or queen’s tears, is a commonly-grown houseplant with unimpressively dull and grassy sharp-edged leaves, but around Easter it erupts into bloom with pendant pink inflorescences of airy blue and green flowers. Billbergia pyramidalis stands in stark contrast with its fireworks of pink pom-poms erupting from a vase of wide and glossy apple-green leaves. Though it may get damaged by freezes, it usually recovers if grown in the ground and mulched. Most Billbergia species and hybrids will also take a freeze, especially old hybrids like ‘Hoelscheriana’, and ‘Windii’


Aechmea distichantha
 

The Neoregelia genus has many species that will do well in zone 9a, but they can be iffy in zone 8. A couple of the most hardy are ‘painted fingernail plant’ (Neoregelia spectabilis) and Neoregelia concentrica, as well as their hybrids. Most in this group are grown for their flat rosettes of colorful leathery leaves, but the short inflorescences are attractive in their own right as they coyly peek out of the water collected in the cups. Neoregelia species are ideal for placing at the bases of trees where their branching stolons and roots help them effectively climb the trunks to create a natural vertical garden.

Vriesea is another genus worth trying where temperatures don’t fall below 20 degrees; especially those hailing from the Atlantic Rain Forest in Brazil. Vriesea philippo-coburgii, V. corcovadensis and V. vagans are especially resilient, as well as the intergeneric hybrid Vriecantarea ‘Inferno’.

Dyckia ‘Red Planet’

All of these bromeliads can be grown in the ground, but some actually prefer to grow there. These are all spiky and dramatic plants that can withstand dry soil, intense sun and any animal foolish enough to try one for dinner. One tangle with those recurved spines will convince you to plant these away from the edges of your beds! Pinguin (Bromelia pinguin) usually outlives the gardeners who plant them, and Dyckia hybrids like ‘Cherry Coke’ have become popular recently for their drought tolerance and tight and spiny rosettes of stiff, arching leaves.

If a forecast of record-breaking cold has you shaking in your shoes, there’s no harm in uprooting your bromeliads and bringing them indoors for a more comfortable night. Even hardy bromeliads sometimes succumb to long periods of cold, damp weather, but you can prevent rot by flushing out the water in each plant’s vase periodically. If you smell a rotting odor, rinse out the vase, remove any dead or dying leaves and let it dry out by turning it upside down for a week.

Cold-tolerant bromeliads can be a bit harder to find than those sold as houseplants, but the effort pays off. Within a couple of years, that lone Aechmea caudata shipped to your doorstep will have bloomed, multiplied and formed a clump of glowing variegated foliage. You can easily order bromeliads online from sources like Tropiflora.com, and local bromeliad societies usually have sales that are open to the public.

So yes, it really is possible to grow one of the most tropical looking plants in your frosty garden. Just think - with a few cleverly placed specimens and a backdrop of evergreens, you can smugly chat away with your jealous relatives in Jersey while you sip a pina-colada and gaze upon your luxuriant jungly garden from the comfort of your Florida home. Bravo, bromeliads.

 

A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 20 Number 1.

 

Posted: 11/28/17   RSS | Print

 

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