Bromeliads are native to the tropical and sub tropical regions of South America. They grow from Virginia in Southern USA through to Argentina. Areas with particular abundance of species include Mexico, some regions of Central America, the West Indies, eastern and southern Brazil and the Andean region from northern Chile to Colombia.
Most bromeliads grow in moist mountain forests between 1,500 and 2,500 metres altitude where they have cloud envelopment for several hours a day and the trichomes capture moisture. A few inhabit nearly rainless coastal deserts. Some survive frequent flooding. Others grow so close to the ocean that they are subjected to salt spray that would kill most other plants.
However, no bromeliad can tolerate prolonged sub-zero temperatures, although a few species have adapted to high tropical mountains where nights can be frosty eg some Tillandsia still occur at 4,000 – 4,300 metres in Peru. Puya raimondii grows at these altitudes in the Peruvian Andes and Puya nivalis approaches the snowline in Colombia at 4,800 metres.
The species Pitcairnia feliciana is the only bromeliad that is not native to the Americas. Its discovery in Guinea, West Africa was unexpected and it is thought to have reached Africa by long distance dispersal 12 million years ago.
Cultivation & Uses
Humans have been using bromeliads for thousands of years. The Incas, Aztecs, Maya and others used them for food, protection, fibre and ceremony. The pineapple is the only member used for food; however several species including Caroa (Neoglaziovia) are used as a source of fibre. Pineapple stems are a source of the enzymes bromelain and papain which are used as a meat tenderizer.
With rare exceptions, bromeliads only flower once and the plant slowly dies after blooming. Plants mature and bloom over differing time periods from one to many years. A strong change in conditions may trigger premature flowering, especially with neoregelias.
The plant stops producing leaves and produces its flower and it will not produce leaves again. It will however vegetatively produce one to many new “offsets” or “pups”. These plants will feed off the mother until they are large enough to set roots and survive as a separate plant. The mother may survive a generation or two before finally dying, thus an attractive clump is formed. Propagation of these is seldom necessary. Other bromeliads look best as single plants and the pups should be removed and established on their own.
Pups are usually produced near the base of the plant, inside the sheath of a leaf. Sometimes they are produced on long stolons or atop the inflorescence of the mother.