January Walking Tour - Bromeliads
By Aaron Sedivy, Horticulturist
There certainly is something to be said about the winters in Colorado. For most of us that live here, it’s a needed change of pace from the busy summers. In the Gardens currently, there is plenty of winter interest, especially if there is a fresh layer of snow to calm and soothe the senses. However, sometimes it can get to be a bit too dreary during a long winter. A cost saving alternative to a vacation in a tropical destination is a stroll through the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory (now 50 years old!) full of warm, moist air to heat you to the soul. This walking tour will focus on the large tropical and semitropical plant family Bromeliaceae, commonly referred to as bromeliads. Bromeliads are widely adaptable and can grow in soil (terrestrial), in trees (epiphytic, not parasitic) or on rock (lithophytic or saxicolous). The two best known members of this incredible family are Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, and the pineapple, Ananas comosus.
We will begin this bromeliad tour at the lower east end of the Boettcher Tropical Conservatory. As you enter, you are greeted with a sculpture of a pineapple. Historically, the pineapple has been a sign of hospitality, believed to have originated from captains of the American colonies back from voyages to the Caribbean. They would affix a pineapple to the fencepost at their home’s entry to announce their return and to invite friends to listen to tales of their journey.
Across the path to your right is a rotating display of bromeliads. There is space here to display five bromeliads at a time from our greenhouse collection when they look their best. It is the case for most bromeliads that once they flower, they die. However, they will often grow pups or offsets from their base. Once their flowers begin to fade, they are brought back to the greenhouses to encourage the growth of the pups and will be on display again when the pups bloom.
If you will next make your way to the top of the concrete banyan tree, we can talk about epiphytic bromeliads. To get to the top, you can use the staircase that wraps around the trunk of the banyan tree, the long staircase that takes you through the canopy or take the elevator right up the center of the tree. I suggest several trips to venture down every path.
If you can stop yourself from looking across the tops of the trees long enough, you will notice bromeliads mounted on cork bark and hung from the wall of the banyan tree in addition to those growing on the “branches.” These bromeliads are epiphytes. They grow on trees but do not harm it unless a branch is overwhelmed by the weight of the epiphytes. Epiphytes are adapted to withstand periods of drought since the bark and accumulated organic matter does not hold water for very long. Two adaptations that are visible in this collection of bromeliads are scales and cups. The whitish bromeliads that look fuzzy have scales, or trichomes, that collect moisture from air and absorb it similar to root hairs. This allows them to get enough water from seasonal fogs or clouds without significant precipitation falling. The bromeliads that have this adaptation are air plants, or Tillandsia spp.
The cup forming bromeliads have also adapted to periods of drought by creating their own reservoir. The base of their leaves grow so snugly together that they form a watertight seal. Water collects here so that when droughts come, the bromeliad is always watered. This source of water is so reliable that these cups are one of the most preferred places by poison dart frogs to lay their eggs.
On your way through the Boettcher Tropical Conservatory towards Marnie’s Pavilion, keep your eye out for epiphytic bromeliads growing in the tree branches. These are fairly small and are easily overlooked. Some of the large and more obvious ground dwelling, or terrestrial, bromeliads you can find on your way include Tillandsia krukoffiana, Vriesea imperialis, Vriesea fosteriana var. seideliana ‘Red Chestnut’, Aechmea blanchetiana, Vriesea hieroglyphica, and a few others.
Marnie’s Pavilion is a two-story display space for our orchid and bromeliad collections. In the concrete, there are cavities large enough to sink a container so that the plants look as if they were in their permanent home. When plants in our collection greenhouses look their best, we can place them here for display so visitors can enjoy them too. After they have finished their floral exhibitions, we switch them out with something else blooming from the collections. Take your time soaking it in because with endless combinations of plants, this space never looks exactly the same twice.
Before you leave, make certain to wander through the Orangery to see the Orchid Showcase, which is open Jan. 8 - Feb. 23. Don’t worry, it isn’t all orchids, there are bromeliads too! While you’re in the Orangery, check out the third greenhouse from Marnie’s to see the bromeliad collection. Plants in here are in various life stages. Many will soon be taken to Marnie’s so you can get a closer look.
Remember, tropical environments have seasons too, so stop by throughout the year to see different blooms during the different seasons, not just when you need a place to warm up!
Photos by Aaron Sedivy