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The Third Dimension

One of the more appealing features of Bromeliads is their ability to be grown in trees. This adds an extra dimension to your garden. Instead of just growing small plants at ground level, with larger shrubs and trees as a backdrop, now you can have the trunks and branches festooned with colourful Bromeliads. This is a great way of adding colour interest into patches of native trees, with the colourful foliage of Bromeliads looking great year round, or rely on the seasonal flowering to produce striking highlights. Many evergreen trees such as Macadamia, Avocado, Citrus, Pohutakawa, Puka, Banksia, Karaka, Taraire have a tendency to produce a number of low angled branches from the same point, forming nice nest areas in the fork to place the Bromeliad clump. Just about any Bromeliads will look great in these, but focus on Neoregelia species if long lasting vibrant leaf colour is needed. Place the coloured centre types, such as Neoregelia carolinae and its hybrids low down in the tree so the colour can be seen. Neoregelia species with markings on the underside of the leaf, such as Neoregelia spectabilis and Neoregelia punctatissima are best placed higher, where viewers have to look up.

In South America, many Bromeliad hosts are deciduous, however, in New Zealand many of the deciduous trees used drop too many large leaves at once, which can clog up the Bromeliads and cause them to rot. In deciduous trees such as Cherries, Willow and Jacaranda, Billbergia species are best, as they cope well with the change in light levels between seasons and the slender rosettes tend to clog less than more open types. Also, the beautiful hanging flowers of Billbergia usually appear in late winter or early spring, before the leaves have returned. This can make for a spectacular display, such as the one at Exotica, where a large twisted Willow has been planted with many different species of Billbergia. Each species has a slightly different flowering period, giving two to three months in shades of pink, red, orange and scarlet.

One of the best for flowering displays is Aechmea nudicaulis and its hybrids, which flower just on Christmas with numerous spikes of scarlet and yellow, just right for the season. Many of the Aechmea genus are equally vibrant at flowering and most are well suited to planting as epiphytes. Instead of hiring expensive machinery to take out large tree stumps, make a talking point of them instead by covering them with Bromeliads. As most stumps are out in the open, hardy Bromeliads will need to be used. This is where the spiky Aechmea come into their own. Species such as Aechmea recurvata, pineliana, and covata are all tough enough for this situation. Also, the hardy Neoregelia species, such as Neoregelia marmorata, princeps, 'Mottles', 'Julian Nally' provide their best leaf colour when grown in full sun.

Tree ferns, either living or dead are ideal for planting epiphytic Bromeliads. All types can be used. The woolly, fibrous trunk types such as Dicksonia fibrosa are great for small Tillandsia, Vriesea and Guzmania species which can be planted directly into the fibre. Clumping types such as Dicksonia squarrosa form natural nesting areas between the stems that larger Bromeliads can be placed on. Hard trunk species, such as the common black tree fern can be used to grow Bromeliads that spread via stolons, for example Neoregelia ampullaceae and its‚ hybrids. These will quickly spread around and up the trunk. The holes left in the top of tree fern stumps once they have died are tailor made for larger Bromeliads. Big Vriesea species, such as Vriesea hieroglyphica, fosteriana Rubra, platynema, 'Red Chestnut' and others are all stupendous in this situation. These large Vriesea are mostly quite hardy, withstanding several degrees of frost and quite a bit of sun. The heavily patterned foliage and large rosettes look stunning on the stump of a punga. On really big stumps, the giant Bromeliads such as Alcantarea imperialis Rubra are in a league of their own.

Some Palms are great for planting with Bromeliads. Large Phoenix reclinata, Phoenix canariensis and Butia capitata form handy pockets that can be used to grow many types of Bromeliads. Trachycarpus fortunei has a fibrous trunk, similar to Dicksonia fibrosa, which can be used for small Bromeliads such as Tillandsia. As this palm provides less shade than a Dicksonia, small highly coloured Neoregelia species could be used, such as Neo. Hoja Roja and Neo. Fireball.

Planting Bromeliads in trees is exceptionally easy. After all, most of the Bromeliad family are natural epiphytes, that is, they live perched on trees and draw their sustenance from the surrounding environment. Bromeliads are not parasites, they do not feed off the host plant, the host plant is used simply as a support to hold the plants. Most trees will cope quite well with Bromeliads lodged in them. It is rare for the host tree to rot or become otherwise damaged by the Bromeliad clump. However, remember that not all Bromeliads are epiphytes. Some are terrestrials such as Puya and Dyckia species, which prefer to be grown in the soil. Others grow better in pots or the soil rather than on trees, even though in nature they are often found as epiphytes. Attaching and caring for epiphytic Bromeliads is as easy as falling off a log! Just follow these steps.

  1. Plant in spring or autumn, when conditions are most favourable for root growth and it isn't either too cold or too sunny for the plants to cope with.

  2. Clumping plants, such as Neoregelia carolinae should be placed near their final position, as these won't move much. Stoloniferous plants (those which spread via short woody stems) such as many Billbergia, some Nidularium, some Neoregelia and some Vriesea species, should be planted lower in the tree. They can then climb the trunk or branch as they grow.

  3. In fibrous trunks such as tree ferns, just open a hole and place the base of the plant in. It can be secured if necessary with plastic coated wire, wrapped around the trunk at the level of the hole. Or, liberally smear the inside of the hole with liquid nails glue or silicone sealer.

  4. In palm pockets, just wedge the plant in the pocket, with the base of the plant or root system in contact with the leaf mould that is in the pocket.

  5. On hard trunks or on tree forks, wrap the root system with sphagnum moss, binding it with plastic coated wire. Then use the wire to attach the clump to the fork or trunk. An alternative is to hammer in large staples, this is particularly useful if attaching a stoloniferous type, where the staple can go over the stolon.

  6. For varieties that form little or no roots, such as some Tillandsia, a glue such as liquid nails can be used to attach the plant to the trunk.

  7. Once the planting is done, water at least weekly, with a spray over the foliage and the base of the plant. This will help the new root system to become established and attach to the tree.

Remember, if wire is used to secure Bromeliads, remove it once the plants have attached themselves, or at least after one year. Otherwise, the host plant will be strangled. Once your aerial garden is established, sit back and enjoy!!

Neo ampullaceae
Neoregelia ampullaceae

Neo spectabilis Rubra
Neoregelia spectabilis Rubra


Neoregelia 'Mottles'