Tag Archives: bilbergia

Shady broms



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. 

Plant Collector: bilbergia

Bilbergia flowering in the winter woodland

Bilbergia flowering in the winter woodland

On a chilly mid winter day, there is nothing more exotic than a bilbergia flowering in the garden. It is a bromeliad, in case you can’t recognise it, and bromeliads can flower through winter when they look impossibly out of context and wonderfully bizarre.

Easily the world’s best known bromeliad is the pineapple, introduced to Europe from South America by none other than Christopher Columbus. All bromeliads are native to the Americas from Virginia south to the northerly reaches of Argentina, with most bilbergias coming from Brazil.

We have never had names on our bromeliads. This one may be Bilbergia distachia – although equally it may not. There are a fairly large number of species and named cultivars to choose from. Bilbergias often have quite a deep cone of foliage and their flowers are pendulous. The downside is that the flowers usually only last a few weeks instead of the months of some other types.

We like them through our evergreen woodland areas which remain frost free. Most are epiphytic, holding water in their vase shaped leaf rosettes and they are a really easy care plant. In more shaded areas, the foliage tends to become more muted but a plainer green backdrop highlights the exotic flowers wonderfully well.

Collecting bromeliads can become quite addictive. If you get keen, there are two comprehensive books on the topic by NZ author, Andrew Steens. Bromeliads for the Contemporary Garden will get you started, then you progress to Bromeliads, The Connoisseur’s Guide. We have a strong preference for using them in mixed plantings so there is not a whole stretch of just bromeliads looking spiky and alien. We find they combine well with clivias, ferns, orchids and other lush shade loving plants which provide a foil to show off their exotica.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Tikorangi Diary: Sunday June 25, 2011

The wisteria festooned bridge in spring

The wisteria festooned bridge in spring

I have pruned the wisterias. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with wisterias which seem to make a leap for freedom the moment my back is turned, but they certainly add to the spring display. The blue (sinensis Blue Sapphire) and white (floribunda Snow Showers) which festoon one of our bridges in the park look terribly romantic in flower, but they are inclined to try and join hands across the middle. And I am worried that some of their thicker branches are threatening the bridge timbers. We don’t worry about the borer attacks. Wisteria are not shy and backward plants which need nurturing so I just cut out badly affected branches as need be. Mark’s mother had a lovely blue wisteria up the wall of the house outside her bedroom window but Felix took it out. I can’t recall now whether he waited til after she died (when the climbing roses went west) but I can remember being a little sad at his actions. These days I know exactly why he removed it. I have had the spouting cracked outside my office window. The last thing we need is a rampant wisteria lifting the concrete roof tiles on the house and cracking our vintage spouting there.

I am also pruning the roses and my relationship with these leans more to hate than love. Yes they have beautiful flowers and fresh foliage in spring. Because we don’t spray, come summer they have some beautiful flowers but cruddy foliage. In winter, all they do is try and ensnare me as I work around the areas where they are planted. I do not feel the need to plant more roses until breeders start to offer us more options in beautifully full, fragrant blooms (of the David Austen type) on bushes that repeat flower and don’t get diseased, preferably without thorns. By far and away, the best performers here are Rose Flower Carpet white and coral, the rugosas and one called, I think, Golden Celebration which has fearsome thorns but very good habits otherwise. But none of these give me the soft and subtle flowers of the lovely Austens.

I had a matched pair of standard Mary Roses of which I was very fond. Note the past tense. Today I dug out the one that is all but dead and which has for a long time persisted in putting out strong shoots from the root stock. And therein lies a demonstration of the problem of matched, formal plantings. What do you do when one dies or ails badly? It is much easier to get the formal look with inanimate objects. I could probably source a replacement standard but I am not going to. I do not think anyone but me will notice that there is one half of a pair missing. It is a garden which, at its best, is full of froth and flower within a formal setting. I think the setting is enough – I will not worry about trying to repeat the formality in framework planting.

Repairing the stone wall (a pine tree fell on this section some years ago)

Repairing the stone wall (a pine tree fell on this section some years ago)

Shamed by a current shortage of greens, Mark is out planting a large quantity of broad beans and peas. I could tell he is going for overkill when he wanted to discuss whether broad beans would freeze well if picked young. The deep freeze is currently full of his frozen corn which, he pointed out to me, we need to be eating at the rate of one packet every 72 hours if we are to get through it before the next crop comes in. The garlic is long planted and is well into growth. These days, he takes Kay Baxter’s advice (from Koanga Institute) and aims to get it planted in autumn so it gets away before sodden winter conditions set in. He is also trying her recommended approach to plant it in a metre grid on a 10 x 10 arrangement (so at 10cm spacing) which is a great deal more economical in space than the usual rows. Keeping it to a metre square means it is easy enough to reach into the middle to weed. I am hoping Lloyd is going to remember that he said he would smoke me some garlic while we still have plenty of last summer’s crop hanging in good condition. Lloyd is the one who owns a smoker here. Smoked garlic is particularly delicious when raw garlic is called for in recipes such as aioli.

When not fluffing around with his vegetable garden, Mark has been giving his attention to his michelia propagation trials. With the flowering season just starting, the hybridist’s hat is back on his head and we face many months where the first call on his time will be his plant breeding. It is easy to underestimate just how much time and energy goes into a controlled plant breeding programme as opposed to people who just pick out chance seedlings (or worse: copy what other breeders have already done successfully. Expect to hear more on this topic, which is a sore point here).

Lloyd is continuing with repairs to our stone wall. I did say last week that these activities are best measured in terms of results, not costs….

And while the winter/early spring bulb season is just starting (Narcissus bulbocodium, galanthus, leucojums and the early lachenalias), it is the bromeliads which are the unsung hero for winter colour this week. If you can grow broms, they sure are eye-catching in bloom.

Bromeliads for winter colour. This one is a Bilbergia.

Bromeliads for winter colour. This one is a Bilbergia.