Originally posted August 2013
If you read my last blog post you are aware I recently returned from my first trip to Hawaii. I feel very blessed to have been able to go to such a wonderful place, witnessing the remarkable and interestingly, contrasting, plant life of the islands. The rainforests to the north and east on the islands are abundant with what we in the 48 grow as “houseplants”, yet the terrains south and west on the islands are arid and complete with sun-loving lantana and varieties of cacti. Not only are there vast differences in rainfall on each individual island, but there are also great variances in altitude and thus, correspondingly variances in temperature. The abundance and variety of greenery in Hawaii makes it not only a paradise for vacationers in general, but truly the pinnacle experience for plant lovers.
Exhausted mother plants and ratoons/pups
Today I’d like to focus on bromeliads. Probably the most popular plant of the Bromeliaceae family is the pineapple. As a curious plant lover my entire life, I hate to admit I had no idea pineapples grew on the stalk of a relatively small plant (see below) versus growing on a tree. After all, the pineapple is a rather large fruit and I felt its mother plant would be comparable in size. To my credit, I was aware pineapples are related to the colorful bromeliads we typically see in our nurseries – yet I still felt sure they were derived from larger, taller plants than their ornamental cousins.
Another interesting tidbit I learned when touring a pineapple winery on Maui is that each plant bears only one fruit per long season and after the third season the plant has usually exhausted its fruiting ability. The first season’s fruit is large and sweet and is harvested from the primary stalk and the next two years’ fruits can be somewhat smaller and are borne from offshoots of the mother plant called ratoons. While I found this remarkable about pineapples, it shouldn’t have been surprising since this is similar to the behavior of most ornamental terrestrial bromeliads. Typically they produce one beautiful, colorful center stalk, or bloom, if you will, and fortunately this bloom stays fresh and vivid for many months. After the center stalk matures, fades to brown, and falls away, the mother plant has essentially exhausted its ornamental abilities. However, about this time one or two offshoots (ratoons or pups) can usually be found at the base of the mother plant. These offshoots can be left as they are to grow as side plants (although again, the mother plant may look a bit drab in comparison and the ratoon crop will not be as vigorous) or better yet, you may wish to separate them from the mother and transplant them to create a new, center-oriented mother plant. Last year, I performed this task with a bromeliad I received as a gift. Right on cue, as the center stalk faded, two ratoons appeared. (Look closely at the base of the mother plant below and you’ll see two new stalks have formed.)
I allowed the ratoons to continue to grow for several weeks along with the mother plant. Once they were of the same height as the mother, I took the entire group (mother and ratoons) out of the pot and sliced the pups from the central plant using a sharp knife, making certain I maintained as many roots as possible on each piece. I then transplanted the pups into their own pots filled with potting material with good drainage ability (I used equal parts regular potting soil combined with orchid mix). As a side note, the bromeliad family is comprised of epiphytes (plants that grow in debris-filled crevices of trees) as well as the terrestrial plants I am focusing on here. As such, they all enjoy growing in coarse, rich, organic material that drains well.
Well, unfortunately only one of the pups mentioned above survived my transplant process. For several months now, the thriving “baby” has been situated on my desk at work, in a prominent spot near a northwesterly window. Each week its center stalk appears to be getting more and more tinged with magenta. Part of its success, I know, is the fact I water the bromeliad, as recommended, predominately through its center stalk. While you may wish to moisten the soil around the base of the plant to alleviate very dry conditions on rare occasions, bromeliads should be watered almost solely through their center stalks, allowing excess water to cup within the leaves of the plant. Be careful not to water too often at the base of the plant or allow too much overflow from the leaf cups as bromeliads can be prone to root rot. Having had the pleasure of seeing not only pineapples in Hawaii, but many other varieties of bromeliads, most of which were found on the windward side of the island in sun filtered, humid rainforests, I was able to witness the natural pooling of rainwater in their center stalk and at their leaf bases. I didn’t realize the practice of watering bromeliads in that manner was based on imitating Mother Nature. But after all, she does know best! (See rainwater within the bloom and leaf cups in the photo below and the intro picture above, compliments of Chris Smith, who took many botanical photos on our group’s recent trip to Hawaii as we toured the equally beautiful Garden of Eden Botanical Gardens and Arboretum and the Ali i Kula Lavender Farm on Maui.)
Speaking of the wonder of Mother Nature, the rain caught in the leaf cups of bromeliads in the wild not only nurtures the plant itself, but it also provides fresh water nourishment for reptiles, amphibians and small mammals of the tropical forest.
In conclusion, if you are looking for a unique and striking house plant with blooms that last for months and months and afterwards, offers you the opportunity to bring up its offspring, you may wish to try your hand at bromeliads. There are numerous varieties and colors available, including variegated types, and I’m sure there is one or two that will fit your home and/or office decor. There is even an ornamental dwarf pineapple available if you are so inclined to give it a try. (Ornamental pineapples are non-edible, and incidentally the true pineapple bears the one and only edible fruit of all bromeliads.)
A few reminders from above to keep in mind when raising bromeliads:
- Think “rainforest” with regard to basic care: warmth (65 – 75 degrees, if possible), high humidity, bright indirect window or filtered sunlight, and consistent moisture to the center stalk and leaf cups.
- Once the mother plant has exhausted its blooming period, anywhere from 4 -9 months depending on the variety, watch for offshoots (ratoons or pups) to form at the base of the plant.
- Continue to care for the plant and allow the pups to grow to about a third of the size of the mother and then divide and transplant them.
- Plant or transplant bromeliads in coarse, well-draining soil material similar to that which you would use for orchids or Christmas Cactus.
- Enjoy 12 – 18 months admiring a tropical beauty from the rainforest and then repeat!
Until next time,