We are not big on low maintenance gardening here, though I know that many others are. It has always seemed like an oxymoron to me. But as I looked at the bromeliads flowering beneath our stand of rimu trees, it occurred to me that here was a genuinely low maintenance area of the garden. As long as you don’t mind the prickly nature of many of the bromeliads, they are extremely undemanding plants.
About twice a year, I don gloves and home-made lower arm puttees (to stop my skin being shredded) to go through removing fallen debris and dead leaves or dying rosettes from the plants. That is about all the maintenance they need which is pretty astonishing for such an exotic planting.
We are not quite frost-free so we grow most of our bromeliads in the high shade cast by huge trees. Some varieties, particularly the ones with red foliage, lose the colour intensity in shaded conditions. Some just turn green, in fact, but at least they never get frosted. Because we are detailed, mix and match gardeners, we don’t only plant bromeliads. They combine very well with ferns, dendrobium orchids, clivias, begonias, hippeastrums and a host of other choice, shade-loving plants.
Mark’s father planted the first stretch of this sub-tropical woodland area back in the 1950s, when the use of bromeliads as shade plants would not have been common. He was working with very few different types but over the years, as a wider range has become available, we have added variety. Most of what we grow are epiphytic so they don’t have much at all in the way of root systems and they gather all the sustenance they need from the air and rain. The majority of them increase steadily by putting up two new rosettes at a time to replace the main one which, having bloomed, will slowly die. In the right conditions, these are truly self-sustaining plants to grow.
I have to make an admission. Neither Mark nor I have any botanical expertise in bromeliads – though we can claim to have gardening experience with them. Neither of us have ever felt drawn to unravel more of their botany. It is a big and complicated family – close to 3500 different species and goodness only knows how many hybrids from crossing the species. The best known member of the family is the pineapple while at the other end of the spectrum, tillandsias (commonly called Spanish moss) are also bromeliads which seems pretty surprising. In the middle are the ones most of know and grow – the alcantareas, bilbergias, neoregelias, vrieseas and the like. A lot of what we have in the garden will be named hybrids though the names have long gone.
If you are more dedicated to the botany of this family than we are, track down the books written by Andrew Steens which are even more useful in that all his experience is based in this country, not overseas.
A fair number of bromeliads come into flower in winter and their exotica is unmatched by any other plants at this somewhat gloomy time of year. Not only can the colour be startling, so too is the huge range of flower form and texture. Some, like vriesea, can resemble flat two dimensional wax creations and these blooms can last months. Others, like the bilbergias, are more abundant but over much more quickly.
If you are willing to tolerate the prickly foliage, the only other downside to my mind is that many hold water in their centres and that can breed mosquitoes in summer.
That opinion was not shared by a cantankerous garden visitor. Notwithstanding that she had managed to get into the garden without paying, she stood in the middle of the Rimu Avenue, looked around and rudely declared, “I hate bromeliads. They look so fake and artificial.” I just left her to it.
First published in the June issue of New Zealand Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.