Guest article for the Tallahassee Democrat
October 30, 2015
By Mike Fagan
Just imagine walking through a tropical rain forest with lush green plants and colorful bromeliads growing in the trees over your head. Do you think it is possible to create this look in Tallahassee? With a little effort, maybe so.
If you have been to botanical gardens in central or south Florida, you have probably seen bromeliads growing in the trees. Leaving bromeliads outside in Leon County winters is risky. However, there are alternatives that will allow you to display bromeliads in a natural setting, and still give them the winter protection they need. Mounting bromeliads on a wood slab or driftwood creates a moveable plant you can bring indoors. Hanging bromeliads from a tree limb, the side of a fence, or on the porch will add a tropical flair to your garden. This also adds a vertical dimension that is difficult to obtain with other plants.
Most bromeliads, about 75%, are epiphytes, meaning they can grow on trees or other wood objects (wood slabs, stumps, driftwood); they don’t need soil. The bromeliad does not harm the tree; it merely uses its roots to anchor itself to the tree. A good example of an epiphytic bromeliad is Spanish moss. Epiphytic bromeliads absorb most of the water and nutrients they need through their leaves. Many bromeliads develop a rosette of leaves that form a cup at the center that will hold water and fallen leaves and debris that provide nutrients. The center cup will provide habitat for small frogs and insects. I even found a small oak snake going after a frog in one of my hanging bromeliads.
Choosing wood for mounting bromeliads. Select a rot resistant wood such as cedar or cypress. Saw mills often have wood slabs that are cut off the outside of the tree with the bark still attached. These slabs are often discarded as scrap. The wood slabs should contain no preservative. Cork bark is another good choice as it is light, does not retain moisture, and has many toe-holds for the roots to grow into. It can be purchased online from many garden supply companies. Another selection, which is in abundant supply in our area, is driftwood. Make sure you soak the driftwood for several days in fresh water as the salt will harm the bromeliad.
Selecting plants. You will need to do research when selecting the plants you want to mount. There are over 40 genera of bromeliads with many species contained in each genus. The genera that are often recommended for mounting are Tillandsias, Billbergias, Neoregelias, and Aechmeas. Vrieseas and Guzmanias are beautiful plants and will work as hanging bromeliads, but they require more water than other bromeliad genera. Ask your nursery for assistance or order them online. There are several excellent mail-order nurseries located in Florida that specialize in bromeliads. If you are not sure what to select, be bold and purchase a few inexpensive plants and experiment.
Preparing plants. Once you have selected the plants to mount, remove all soil and roots from the plant. Wash the plant of all soil residue and set aside to dry. Younger plants work better; in fact it is often recommended to mount pups, or offsets, from the mother plant. The pups from mature bromeliads can be removed once the pup is at least one third the size of the mother plant. If you are ordering plants online you can request pups of the species you are interested in. They are also cheaper than the mature plant.
Mounting bromeliads. The next step is to attach the plants. Give some thought to design and placement, taking into account the size, water and light needs of each plant. Arrange your plants on the wood slab. Mark the wood on both sides of each plant where it will be attached to the slab. Now drill holes big enough to accommodate a plastic wire where the marks are. You want to thread the wire through the two holes and wrap them around the base of the plant. Make sure you get a firm fit because the plant roots will not attach to the mount if it is a loose fit. Trim off any excess wire. Black cable ties that are found in the electrical section of a hardware store work well. Do not use copper wire as it is toxic to the plant. Once mounted on the wood slab the plant will form its own roots and attach to the mounting material.
Most of your smaller bromeliads, such as Tillandsias, can be attached with hot glue or construction adhesive such as Liquid Nail or Plumber’s Goop. If you want to hide the attachment point you can apply a little adhesive at the plant base and attach some fibrous material (sphagnum moss or coco fiber).
Now you can sit back and watch the show. As the plants mature, they will bloom and form new pups that will give an ever changing look. At some point the bromeliads will become attached to the wood by their roots and you can remove the wire. As the mother plant dies out you can remove it as the pups will have taken over.
I have always enjoyed visiting tropical rain forests and hanging bromeliads will help you create that look in Leon County. Do not be afraid to experiment. You will be rewarded for your efforts.
Mike Fagan is volunteering as a Master Gardener in training with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Service. Alton Towles of Gourds and Gophers Plant Nursery contributed to this article. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov