It was in the 1960s, during my teenage years in Europe, when my plant-loving father presented my mom with one of the most exotic potted plants I had ever seen: a striking pink and purple flower with rosette-shaped silvery leaves. It was a bromeliad, which, as I learned later in life, is a member of the pineapple family native to the Americas. The plant in question is called silver vase, or Aechmea fasciata by its scientific name. Native to Brazil, it is among the best known and most cultivated bromeliads, and is often used as a houseplant.
My father’s precious gift created an indelible impression in my memory, allowing me a fascinating glimpse into the natural wonders of the New World tropics. Three decades later, while preparing for our move to Central America, my husband and I attended a series of lectures on the biodiversity of the neotropical rain forest, one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. And as bromeliads are abundant in virtually all of these forests, it was just a matter of time until we came across my old favorite.
During a previous visit to our new home country, we had hiked in the cloud forests around Barva and Poás volcanoes – mystical places, especially attractive in the morning, when the sun’s rays shine through the foliage, past hanging branches and between mosses, ferns and orchids, onto the reddish rosettes of bromeliads that seem to be on fire.
After moving to Costa Rica in 1994, we wanted some bromeliads as ornamentals for our garden, but found they were absent in local nurseries. I investigated, assuming they were cultivated somewhere in Central America. Several coincidences and phone calls later, I was introduced to Chester Skotak, a Costa Rica-based bromeliad expert and professional hybridizer, who runs Dura Flor nursery in the western Central Valley town of Palmares.
Since then, bromeliads have become an integral part of our plant collection, greatly enhancing the variety and beauty of our gardens, as well as our understanding of this widespread family of plants, named after Swedish botanist Olaf Bromelius.
The bromeliad family contains more than 3,000 described species in approximately 56 genera. They are found from tropical to warm temperate regions of the New World, with one species found in tropical West Africa. With the richest bromeliad flora of Central America, Costa Rica is second only to Brazil in numbers of bromeliad genera.
The family includes both epiphytes (nonparasitic plants that grow on other plants) such as Spanish moss and terrestrial species such as pineapple. Some members resemble aloes and yuccas, while others look like green, leafy grasses. Bromeliads come in a wide range of sizes, from tiny miniatures to giant plants.
Bromeliads are masters of adaptation. Living virtually on air, water and sunshine, they are remarkably resistant plants, adapted to the most extreme ecosystems. They can live in a vast array of environmental conditions, from hot, dry deserts to moist rain forests and cool mountainous regions.
These resourceful plants have their own water supply. The leaves of many species are arranged in an overlapping rosette forming a cistern that holds water and detritus. Thus do epiphytic bromeliads provide a source of moisture to many canopy-dwellers. Tree frogs, insects, snails and salamanders complete their life cycles in the tiny aquatic habitats provided by the cuplike interiors of the plants. Some species of euphonias, small colorful birds, even use them as nest sites.
When we eat a pineapple, we are enjoying the fruit of the best-known member of the bromeliad family, Ananas comosus. Christopher Columbus introduced this queen of fruit to Spain more than 500 years ago, entering bromeliads into recorded history. Centuries before the explorer’s arrival, this highly esteemed fruit was distributed and domesticated throughout the tropical lowlands of the Americas by native inhabitants. Since the colonial Spanish and Portuguese voyages, the genus Ananas has become pantropical. The pineapple is now the third most important tropical fruit crop in the world and the only bromeliad fruit in widespread cultivation. It is high in vitamin C and the only known source of bromelain, a complex enzyme used in pharmaceuticals.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, more ornamental bromeliads were brought to Europe. Originally found only in botanical gardens or private greenhouses, bromeliads have become more widely used as ornamentals in the past hundred years.
With their popularity now spreading to the masses, they inspire photographers, novelists and landscapers. Roberto Burle Marx, a Brazilian artist, botanist and landscape architect, was among the first to introduce them into garden design.
Affordable and easy to grow, bromeliad hybrids are suitable for every kind of tropical and warm temperate garden. They require very little care and reward us with brilliant, long-lasting flowers and ornamental foliage. The rosette-shaped cup in the middle of the plant should be filled with water at all times, and the mixture in the pot should be moist, not dry or wet.
In Costa Rica, bromeliad hybrids are now common in nurseries throughout the country. Especially well stocked are Exotica in San José’s western suburb of Escazú, EPA stores and Vivero Central in La Garita de Alajuela, northwest of San José.
My love affair with bromeliads is still going strong. On the occasion of our son’s birth, my father presented me with a Monstera deliciosa, also native to tropical regions of the Americas. But that’s another story.