|The classic Kiwi beach house has evolved from a small bach on a Kikuyu lawn to Californian style homes with extensive gardens. But many of the plants we use for these gardens wilt and burn in the scorching heat, dry sandy soils and blazing sun. And in the heat of summer many of us would prefer to be down the beach than gardening.
The answer that many people find is to plant desert or Mediterranean style gardens. This style of gardening is becoming quite popular for its‚ dramatic appearance and ease of care. An overlooked group of plants for this situation is the Bromeliad family. Although better known for the tropical soft leaved species such as Guzmania or the epiphytes such as Tillandsia, there is actually a huge number of Bromeliads that thrive in desert or beach type conditions. Indeed, many well known Bromeliads are native to such famous beaches as Copacabana and the Baja Peninsula. These gardens are not only for the subtropical North, many of the Bromeliads suited to these conditions are also very cold hardy. This is not surprising, as in their native desert or grassland environment, temperatures can drop well below freezing overnight. Some, such as Bromelia balansae and Aechmea distichantha can cope with -10°C without damage.
Bromelia balansae and other members of the Bromelia genus are amongst the toughest of all plants. Use these like you would Agave americana. That is, place them where they have room to move, as they clump vigorously and preferably on a mound, out of the way of children or passers-by, as the large rosettes of silvery green foliage up to 1.5 metres in diameter are edged in vicious curved spines and tipped with near daggers! Striking as a foliage plant only, it is stunning in flower, when all the central leaves turn fiery red, topped with a felted white flower spike with purple flower petals. In South America, rows of these are used around isolated properties to keep out both two legged and four legged predators!
Of the Aechmea genus, some of the toughest are the Aechmea distichantha varieties. These form large, silver grey spiky plants up to 1.5m high, with needle sharp terminal spines. The stunning flower spikes can be seen for some distance and last for months. Aechmea recurvata and its varieties are also exceptionally hardy. These are much smaller plants, and are great for planting on driftwood for that beach look, or using as drifts of colour over shells or pebbles. During flowering, which usually occurs in summer, the rosettes of spiny, grey/green foliage change colour and the plants can look as if they are sprayed with shiny laquer. Depending on the variety, the plants will turn bright pink, fire engine red, purple or even charcoal at flowering.
Alcantarea imperialis 'Rubra' would have to be the plant of the moment. Although it looks tropical, it is in fact very tough, handling full sun, salt spray an drought with ease. This Bromeliad grows to a span of more than 1.5 metres, although it takes up to ten years to get to this size. The thick red flower spike reaches up to 2.5 metres in height, producing hundreds of slightly fragrant white flowers. It is native to mountains near Rio de Janeiro at an elevation of 1,500 metres. In full sun, the leaves take on a deep red cast.
Dyckia species are often grown with other succulents and Cacti, as the stiff spiky leaves fit well with these other plants. Over time, the plants will form tight mounds of spiky leaves. Most species are reasonably small, although there are a few large and imposing species for the larger garden. In summer the flower spikes are generously provided, mostly in yellows and oranges. This group of plants is very tough, with many native to Southern South America, making them very suitable for New Zealand conditions. Of course the Neoregelia genus can‚t be overlooked for this style of garden. With their flat rosettes and brightly coloured foliage Neos add the sizzle to any hot garden. Not all Neoregelia are suited to this type of situation though, so be careful when selecting plants. In general, those Neos with heavily patterned, leathery foliage are best suited, while the softer, shinier leaf types are best kept under light shade and away from frost. Some tried and true Neoregelia species include Neoregelia 'Julian Nally' with marbled maroon and green leaves, Neoregelia 'Mottles' with stout, heavily mottled leaves of dark maroon. The harsher the environment, the brighter the maroon speckling, as with all the Neoregelia marmorata hybrids. Neoregelia chlorosticta and its‚ hybrids are also ideal, these are smaller plants than the above, but the colourful rosettes of red leaves peppered with green make this a colourful and interesting species.
Of course, any hardy Neo garden should have a drift of Neoregelia concentrica hybrids. These large, tough rosettes of leathery leaves are usually heavily blotched with dark purple to black markings. The markings intensify in harsh conditions. At flowering the centre turns rich purple, shocking pink, deep blue or glorious red depending on the variety.
Neoregelia cruenta x olens 'Vulcan' is an excellent hybrid which provides a good contrast to most other Neos. Light green leaves, which turn nearly yellow in strong light, provide a background for light speckles of red, with red leaf tips and a red centre at flowering. The red form of Neo. cruenta is also a stunning plant. The upper surface of the leathery leaves is a dark speckled red, while the underside is barred with silver.
Some of the miniature Neos are also great for this style of garden. Hybrids with 'Fireball' as a parent are particularly good, such as Neoregelia 'Short & Sweet', which shows its best colours when in full sun and harsh conditions. These plants can add the finishing touches, by being planted as epiphytes on stumps, driftwood or even on mooring posts!
The Puya genus is exceptionally well suited to the desert or beach style garden. Although most come from the Andean highlands at altitudes of 3,000 to 5,000 metres above sea level, they are so tough that they can be grow just about anywhere. Most are very large plants and exceptionally well protected with spines. However there are a few smaller species also, such as Puya mirabilis, which has numerous thin silver green leaves up to 50cm long. Puyas have some of the most unusual flowers in the Bromeliad family and Puya mirabilis is no exception, with greenish white scented flowers.
The design of your desert style garden needs to be well thought out, as these hardy Bromeliads are not plants to be shifted easily. Points to consider include drainage, soil type, weed control, contour of the garden, eventual plant size (remember Bromeliads clump vigorously!). Also, keep in mind particular foibles of some plants, for example, Bromelia balansae sends out very strong suckers some distance, so unless you want these growing up to your front door, make sure there is some barrier, for example; boulders, a drain, retaining wall etc.
It is a good idea to wear leather gloves and canvas arm protectors for dealing with the bigger more vicious types. Make sure you get in early with weed control. Spraying or digging out perennial weeds is a must before planting as weed control is very difficult later.
Once the planting is finished, set your hammock up with a good view of the garden and enjoy, as your garden work is done for the next few years.
Neoregelia spectabilis 'Rubra'
Neoregelia concentrica 'Dusky'
Neoregelia 'Red of Rio'
Neoregelia 'Ryan's Red'