Tag Archives: bromeliads

Prickly matters

I have, as we say, been ‘doing under the rimus’. “It looks like you have vacuumed it,” said Zach and I was gratified because it is a big job on one of the key areas of the garden. The pressure is on, you understand, with just under five weeks until we open for the Taranaki Garden Festival.

Not, as we thought, a billbergia but Aechmea coelestris var albomarginata

We have our fingers crossed that Auckland will be out of Level 3 so able to travel (looking good, Aucklanders, on Friday’s figures! The rest of us around the country are holding our collective breath for you. Well, most of us around the country).


Cleaning up under the rimus is painstaking work but it only needs that level of attention once a year so I generally describe it as low maintenance. I go through and pick over every plant to remove the debris that falls continuously from the trees above and to groom each plant. We are not talking a small area – maybe 100 metres long and varying from 10 to 30 metres wide. The debris is being removed by the wool bale load even though we leave the rimu needles to provide the path surfaces.


It is a complex planting but bromeliads feature large. It is not that we have a choice collection of bromeliads. Our interest lies solely in them as garden plants in a shaded, borderline-sub-tropical situation so that limits the range we can grow. Broms are a huge family and largely from the tropical areas of the Americas. The best-known bromeliad is of course the pineapple. I have something of an aversion to prickly plants and many broms are prickly. Their flowering, while undeniably exotic and interesting, doesn’t make my heart sing like some other plants. So my knowledge of them is limited to caring for the ones we have and I have never felt motivated to get to grips with the whole plant family, botanically speaking.

Nidularium probably procerum, I am told by one who knows more about these than I do

Most of the varieties we have flower and then put out one or two fresh shoots to the side while the flowering centre starts to whiff off and die, sometimes very slowly over a period of two years or more if left alone. Once they start to discolour, I go through and cut them off which stops the clump from looking too crowded.

A particularly prickly aechmea

The very best implement for this is what I now see is named a ‘flax cutter’ – a small curved, serrated blade that is extremely useful for many garden tasks but probably not cutting flax. It is handy for cutting down grasses and faster than secateurs for deadheading perennials that need flowering spikes cut off. I had to go and buy a new one this week. I lost my good one somewhere amongst the bromeliads. I then went and found my old one and promptly lost that too. You would think I might have learned by now to keep better track of garden tools. This one came with a nice ash wood handle but I spray painted it before I even took it out to the garden – blue, because we had a can of blue spray paint on the shelf. I will not lose this one, I have vowed to myself.

Arm puttees and the new flax cutter

The second piece of vital gear is arm puttees. The alternative is that the prickly bromeliad leaves will shred the skin from the top of the garden gloves to the elbow. I speak from experience here. My arm puttees are simply the sleeves cut from an old denim shirt, elasticated at both the wrist and the elbow. They are worth improvising if you are dealing with prickly plants.

DIY garden kneeling pads

While on handy hints, I can highly recommend cutting kneeling pads from the high-density foam mats sometimes used as yoga mats or sleeping mats for trampers. One came into my possession and I can see it will last me for years. I simply cut it to the required size with what we know as a Stanley knife which is just a larger box-cutter. I find the kneeling mats sold in garden supply shops way too small but these I can make in a size that suits me. They cushion the ground and keep my knees dry, as long as I keep to the mat.

A billbergia

I had a mental debate with myself as to whether I could post my few photos of those currently in flower in the area where I am working without naming them – by general group if not cultivar. Well, we have long since lost the cultivar names. I have never committed bromeliad groups to memory but I feel I am lowering standards if I don’t name plants here so feel free to correct me on the classifications. We are by no means certain on them. Postscript: I have done a round of corrections on the photo caps after receiving advice from a reader who knows a whole lot more about bromeliad botany and nomenclature than we do.

What we refer to as an FIK but I am now told is Aechmea pineliana
No prickles! Aechmea gamosepala X ‘Cappuchino’

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: vriesea

A vriesea, but we are not sure which one

A vriesea, but we are not sure which one

In the depths of winter, most of the bromeliads come into flower – an exotic counterpoint to wintery gloom. Bromeliads are a surprisingly diverse plant family. The best known brom is the pineapple but fewer realise that tillandsia or Spanish moss is also a member. The vast majority come from the warmer climes of Central America. This one is a vriesea. It will be a named cultivar but we lost the labels in the mists of time. Unlike many in the family, it is not prickly. Its foliage is just an anonymous looking green rosette, really, which holds water and also traps an abundance of falling leaves and debris. Then it puts up this flower which lasts for many weeks, stretching into a couple of months. The bloom is like a flat wax cast, almost two dimensional and of such heavy substance that it is unaffected by the weather.

Like many bromeliads, the vriesea is epiphytic and generally self sustaining. It draws all the sustenance it needs from the air and rain and will grow perched in the fork of a tree or on an old stump. This one is in the ground but it will never develop much of a root system.

We grow most of our bromeliads in protected woodland conditions with high shade from evergreen trees. It can get cold for them, but they never get any frost. We go through and pluck out debris and remove dead leaves from time to time and in return, they are totally undemanding and surprise us with the most wonderfully exotic blooms.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted 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.

Plants that Delight

This article was first published in the Weekend Gardener Magazine, issue 316, June 2 – 15, 2011

Bromeliads - a vriesea

Bromeliads - a vriesea

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of prickly, spiky plants (I have always felt that yuccas in particular were aptly named) but I am willing to make an exception for the bromeliad family even though it means donning protective gear when it comes to working amongst them. We use them extensively in dry woodland conditions and for much of the year they just sit around being extremely undemanding, bar the occasional clean up to remove accumulated debris.

It is when they flower, that bromeliads look exotic. The range of blooms is extraordinary and there is nothing quite like them. Some of them have strange, flattish flowers which might be cast out of thick wax, dyed in parrot colours. What is more, the flowers last for ages. I haven’t timed them but we are into months, rather than weeks. This one is a vriesea of some sort but we have never become experts on the genus, despite growing a range of different ones. Our cool, frost free, high shade conditions keep them looking particularly lush. With some of our plantings dating back to the early 1950s, we would rate them as one of the lower maintenance garden plants.

Bromeliads are readily available and many are easy to multiply for the home gardener. If you want to learn more about bromeliads, check out “Bromeliads for the Contemporary Garden” by Weekend Gardener writer, Andrew Steens.



The simplest poppy form – a mere four petals surrounding a ring of golden stamens – is always charming, no matter the colour. When it comes in pure blue, it enters a league of its own.

Coming from the Himalayas, these are plants which are happier in much drier, colder conditions. We have to work at keeping them going here, where we have high rainfall, high humidity and generally mild conditions. They certainly don’t seed down and naturalise for us as they will in parts of the South Island but when they come into flower each spring, it is worth every bit of effort.

We don’t generally let them flower in the first year because if they put their effort into setting seed, the young plants tend to die. If we delay the flowering, we have more chance of some at least becoming perennial, albeit still comparatively short lived. Fresh seed is easy enough to raise but best done in seed trays and not merely broadcast to the ground with a wish and a prayer.

Meconopsis are available in New Zealand both as seed and as plants. If you have a choice, Meconopsis x sheldonii shows a little more vigour than either grandis or betonicifolia. All come in blue, though there are also white, pale yellow and red meconopsis which are nice to add in to a garden but no replacement for the beautiful and eye-catching blue.

Magnolia Felix Jury

Magnolia Felix Jury

Deciduous magnolias
How could I be a Jury and not put deciduous magnolias in my top favourites? These trees are surely one of the most spectacular on the planet when in full flower, though it has to be said that the bigger the flower, the better in terms of impressive display.

Magnolia trees just get better with size and age which seems entirely appropriate for a genus which is ancient – so old that it does not even have proper petals. What we usually call petals are in fact tepals. They evolved before bees so originally adapted to be pollinated by beetles – hence the fact they have pollen but no nectar.

To get maximum flowering, select a variety which sets flower buds down the stem rather than just on the tips. Some varieties like the purple Lanarth can take your breath away but only for about 10 days. Others, like Iolanthe or Felix Jury, flower over many weeks, extending the display. Indeed, spring flowering on Iolanthe extends over at least eight weeks from first to last bloom and there is the bonus of random flowers over summer.

Daphne genkwa

Daphne genkwa

Daphne genkwa
A daphne with no scent? Yes, but it is so spectacular in flower that the absence of fragrance does not seem to matter. It is also deciduous, which we do not expect from a daphne and it flowers before it comes into leaf so all that is visible is a mass of graceful whips smothered in lavender blue flowers.
I think you can never have too much blue in a garden. It is a colour that complements all others and while I will admit that genkwa is not a pure toned blue, it is still blue enough for me.

D. genkwa is not easy to propagate and is generally increased from root cuttings. Neither is it easy to get established. In fact it is definitely on the touchy side. This plant was a particularly fine specimen but outgrew its allotted space so I pruned it after flowering, as you do. It promptly died, to my great disappointment. I am trying again, but this time as specimen shrubs with plenty of space to grow so they will not need to be pruned. Daphne genkwa is available in New Zealand but is not standard garden centre fare so you may need to find an obliging operator to order it in for you. It is a Chinese shrub and, being deciduous, it is generally rated as hardy.

Narcissus cyclamineus

Narcissus cyclamineus

Dwarf narcissi
In a large garden with some enormous trees, we love the tiny treasures that give detail to the bigger picture. We also have more success with the baby narcissus than with their larger cousins. They don’t seem to be quite so vulnerable to the dreaded narcissi fly, possibly because many of them flower earlier in the season.

These little cyclamineus seedlings always make us smile. With the reflexed skirt of petals, they are rather reminiscent of floppy eared dogs with the heads out the car window and ears streaming behind in the wind.

We grow a whole range of different dwarf varieties – species, named hybrids and unnamed seedlings, tucked into positions around the garden. The first to bloom are the Narcissus bulbocodium citrinus or hooped petticoat types which can show colour as early as late April while others continue the display through to late September. The best known dwarf variety is probably Tete-a- Tete, but there are innumerable others which are offered for sale from time to time.

Cyclamen hederafolium

Cyclamen hederafolium

Cyclamen species
These little treasures mostly hail from southern Europe and northern Africa but some varieties are particularly suited to New Zealand gardens.

The most widely available variety is Cyclamen hederafolium (formerly known as neapolitanum) which puts its first flowers up in our garden in January and flowers through until May or even June. After that, the marbled, heart-shaped leaves are attractive in themselves. C. hederafolium comes in shades of pink and pure white. Following on from them, we have a lot of success with C. coum in winter and C. repandum in spring.

Cyclamen are particularly successful planted in drifts on woodland margins in dappled light but they are pretty adaptable in a range of conditions as long as they have good drainage. They are easy enough to raise from fresh seed if you know of anybody with plants and they grow to form tubers which are like round, flattish discs.

Rhododendron Yvonne Scott

Rhododendron Yvonne Scott

Unfortunately, the glory days of rhododendrons have been and gone in this country, but we would not be without them in our garden. Our particular favourites are the nuttalliitypes with their large, waxy trumpet flowers, most of which are scented. Combine that with big, heavily textured leaves (the technical term is bullate foliage) and the most beautiful cinnamon brown bark which peels off in long tendrils leaving a shiny trunk behind.

Add in the fact that these plants show generally healthy characteristics in warmer climates. They can get a touch of thrip but nowhere near as much as colder climate plants and they are not susceptible to the brown crisping round the edges of the leaves which disfigures so many varieties.

If I could only grow one rhododendron, R. sino nuttallii would be my first choice. Sino just means it comes from China (there is another Himalayan form). Fortunately we can grow many so we have a fair range of the nuttalliis and their hybrids, including the lovely and distinctive Yvonne Scott. Huge lime green buds open to lime flowers which fade out to white within two days, but keep the green flare in the throat. Mi Amor is probably the most widely available nuttallii hybrid on the market. While we might not rate it as the best, nuttalliis are not readily available so you might have to grab whatever you can find.