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Written by Jeff Shimonski, BT Contributor   
April 2020

A terrestrial bromeliad attracts hummingbirds

CPix_YourGarden_4-20olor is so important in plants. The different colors of ripening fruit, from green to yellow or green to red, are signals to fruit dispersers, the eaters of the fruit, that the fruit is ready to eat, is not toxic, and palatable enough to eat and digest. Different colors of flowers attract different pollinators, just as the different shapes of the flowers can tell you what can pollinate it successfully.

Check out the photo that accompanies this article. It is the inflorescence, or flower spike, of a terrestrial bromeliad, Pitcairnia corallina, that was given to me decades ago by a collector who found this plant in Ecuador. It is currently in bloom in my garden.

Note that this inflorescence is hanging downward out of the large clay container in which it’s growing. This bromeliad actually sends out the structure that produces its flowers along the ground. It does not grow upward like most of the bromeliads we are used to seeing in our gardens. So how does a flower like this ever get pollinated?

The long, leafy-looking foliage grows vertically and can reach four to five feet in height. It makes a nice tall, green, and fairly dense ground cover. When we grew a large bed of it at Jungle Island, the inflorescences would grow away from the plants, toward more open, more sunlit areas. The bright-red flowers were not covered up by the bromeliad’s foliage and would be easily seen from a short distance.

Many species of bromeliads are pollinated by hummingbirds. Look at the shape of the individual flowers on this bromeliad, and see how they correspond to the shape and length of a hummingbird’s beak. The flowers are bright red or reddish-orange, and hummingbirds are color-oriented; butterflies are color-oriented too, but it is more likely that this is a plant that is pollinated by hummingbirds.

The fact that this bromeliad (1) grows its inflorescence on the ground, and (2) the color and structure of its flowers are known to attract hummingbirds makes this plant oddly deviant because it offers little protection from predators when the little birds come down to collect the copious amounts of nectar that the flowers produce.

In the wild, these bromeliads grow where their seeds have been dropped by other birds or animals that have eaten the fruit. I know this bromeliad is occasionally seen growing as an epiphyte on trees, and it has definitely been seen growing among the rocks on cliffs. That means its inflorescence, up to three or four feet long, will hang down, clearly exposed visually -- and of course, giving the hummingbirds a safer locale to collect the nectar from the flowers.

I prefer to grow this bromeliad in large tall pots so that when the flower structure, or inflorescence, is produced, it will hang down for all to see. It is really a striking reddish-orange color.

Note that when it’s grown in the ground, there are no spines on the leaves. So you won’t get scratched up by the leaves; but small spines do grow on the petioles, those little stalks that attach the leaves to the base of the plant, and they can be quite annoying. A great bedding plant to grow along the edge of your garden will help discourage unwanted guests.

Remember, almost all species of bromeliads bloom once. Sometimes, depending on the species, the plant may last for a year or so, producing suckers at its base, but most species die soon after blooming or after setting fruit if the flowers have been pollinated. This bromeliad is no exception. The ends of the long leaves will begin to turn brown and eventually die.

When I see the leaves start to dry out, I just cut those leaves at the base of their petiole. Be careful of the little spines; make sure you are wearing gloves for this leaf removal process.

If you have a nice large bed, or have these in a large pot, the removal of the dried leaves will not be noticed, as there will be many other individual plants that still haven’t bloomed yet.

Many species of bromeliads are true epiphytes and, in nature, are found almost always growing on the trunks and branches of trees. Some of these species have their inflorescences always grow downward. Utilizing the uncommon but interesting bromeliad species in your garden can certainly add character and interesting color for you to enjoy.

If you have a balcony or small porch, some of these bromeliad species would be perfect. I’m always on the lookout for heavy clay or concrete pots or urns that I can use to feature my collection.

 

Jeff Shimonski is an ISA-certified arborist municipal specialist, retired director of horticulture at Parrot Jungle and Jungle Island. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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