Branch Out Into Bromeliads

There's more to life than palm trees. Philip McErlean of Northern Ireland makes some exotic suggestions.
Philip McErlean, 21 Lucerne Parade, Belfast, BT9 5FT, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 1, published online 23-11-2002

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Fasicularia bicolour

I almost feel as though I should apologise for writing on a 'non-palm' subject in the very first issue of "Chamaerops" but one of the exciting aspects of this new bulletin is that we are able to delve a little into our sidelines. Few of us are growing palms exclusively so if the purists will forgive me, here are a few suggestions concerning bromeliads, which I have been growing, have seen growing, or would like to grow.

Some years ago I was leafing through a nursery catalogue and came across some suggestions for subtropical effect. I was by then aware of the virtues of Trachycarpus, Cordylines, Yuccas, Phormiums etc., but included in the list was Fasicularia bicolour. I seem to remember it was described in the catalogue as being of cactus-like appearance, which intrigued me as it was also considered to be hardy. I had already overextended my budget for that particular order so decided to leave the Fasicularia for another time. When I finally did seek it out, it was no longer listed by that nursery, and I couldn't find it in other catalogues (sound familiar?).

Eventually I did come across one in a local garden centre. It certainly was not cactus-like apart from the spines on the leaf edges, more aloe-like. I enquired the price, only to be told that it was not for sale as it was intended for propagation! I did eventually get one from Longman Gardens (see sources) and have not been disappointed. It flowered for the first time last summer. The flower itself was like a little blue pine cone embedded in the centre of the rosette, but the stiff, long, narrow, spined leaves radiating out from the centre had turned a vibrant scarlet except for the outer few inches which remained grey/green.

In the meantime I had seen many clumps of F. bicolour in local gardens such as Mount Stewart (near Newtownards, County Down) and Rowallen (Saintfield, County Down). Some of these were obviously long established, spreading over several feet. I confess to preferring the younger plants with fewer rosettes, as larger plants tend to take on a tussocky appearance. It certainly appears to be hardy here, and I would not expect minus 10°C to threaten an established plant. Originating from as far south as 440 in Chile, F. bicolour is not unaccustomed to frost. In its native habitat it is xerophytic, but has proved itself adaptable to moister climates as here in Northern Ireland.

Other Fasicularia species include F. pitcairnsiana, which is said by Rauh (see later) to be the better in cultivation. In my order from Long Man Gardens I also obtained F. kirchgartniana. It has a tidier appearance that F. bicolour but has yet to flower for me, although the main rosette has a purplish coloration on the leaves.

Another Bromeliad grown in a few N. Ireland gardens is Ochagavia lindleyana. It also is similar in appearance to F. bicolour but the central flower cluster has a pink, rather than a blue, colouration to the leaf bracts, and is not so dramatically coloured. It is grown at Glenveigh, Co. Donegal and I have seen it in a private garden at Seaford, Co. Down. It was only in early summer 1990 that I noticed two small clumps of 0. lindleyana growing in a flowerbed outside the west wing of the Palm House in Belfast's botanic garden. F. bicolour can be seen outside the east wing.

Puya species contain some of the giants of the Bromeliad family, and as many of these are from high altitudes of the Andes of South America, it is not surprising that a few of them have found their way into U.K. and Irish gardens.

P. mirabilis is a very attractive stem-less, green-leaved bromeliad. The narrow, drooping leaves are margined with fine but sharp hooks. I have a few 3/4 year old plants some 14" (35cm) high grown from seed, two of which have survived the last two (admittedly mild) winters outdoors, even so, I think this is a plant for milder climates, the Scilly Isles for example. None has flowered as yet although it is said to be a very free flowering species, producing a flower stalk of a metre or more.

One species which will certainly appeal to the 'sub-tropical' gardener is P. raimondii. It is the largest of all the bromeliads and is top of my 'want list' at the moment, but I have yet to discover a U.K. mail order source. It is an immense plant, which, from photographs, resembles a Yucca elata in that it has a dense rosette of long, narrow rigid leaves radiating out in all directions. In aged specimens, a shag of dead leaves covers a thick trunk of 6-15ft (180 to 450cm). The flower stalk is a towering 15ft (450cm) club, borne after 50 to 70 years, and resulting in the death of the plant itself. Obviously this sight may be appreciated only by your children or grandchildren although you may catch a glimpse of it from your bath chair if you are less than 40! P. raimondii comes from the high Andes of Peru at 3,800 to 4,500m, which is close to the snow line, so it should be well able to survive a few degrees of frost at least.

I know of three other Puya species growing in English or Irish gardens: P. alpestris, P. chilensis and P. caerulea, of which P. alpestris seems to be the more widely grown. Locally it has been cultivated at Guincho in Holywood, near Belfast. It grows to about 3ft (1m) and produces a flower stalk of 6ft or more. As the name suggests, it belongs to the alpine areas of the Andes of Chile. From titbits of information that come my way I can report (somewhat belatedly!) that P. alpestris survived the severe winter of 1962/3 at Guincho, uninjured. For the record, plants of this species also survived at Sidmouth and Trengwainton, but were killed at Salcombe, Bridgend, and Handsworth, Birmingham (notes from the RHS journal sometime in 1964 I think).

P. chilensis is also from Chile, and is larger than P. alpestris, exceeding 3ft in height and, in time, a branching stem and a 6-lOft (2-3m) flower stalk. Like many of the larger Puyas it carries an armoury of stout spines on its 2" (5cm) wide by 3ft long leaves. It grows at Tresco and elsewhere.

The remaining species, P. caerulea also occurs at Guincho. It is a moderately large (2ft/50cm), Chilean species with a shorter, thicker inflorescence than P. chilensis. I should point out that both Guincho and Mount Stewart have relatively mild microclimates although -10°C has been known.

Much information on Puyas, Fasicularia, Ochagavia, and many other, less hardy, bromeliads can be found in Werner Rauh's detailed book, "Bromeliads for Home, Garden & Greenhouse" (Blandford Press, Poole, Dorset 1979).

That's about it, apart from some sources listed below. Please accept the above information as the views of a total amateur but one who is keen to make space for a few of the more cold tolerant bromeliads. I will gladly bow to superior knowledge when it appears in these pages, as I hope it does.

Sources:

Ballyrogan Nurseries, The Grange, Ballyrogan, Newtownards, Co. Down, N. Ireland BT23 45D keep F. bicolour, as do Long Man Gardens, Lewes Road, Wilmington, East Sussex, BN26 5R5. Long Man also stock F. pitcairniensis, and F. kirchgartniana.

For F. andina try Burncoose & Southdown Nurseries, Gwennap, Redruth, Cornwall, TR16 6BJ. Puya alpestris and P. chilensis are available from Architectural Plants, Cooks Farm, Nuthurst, W. Sussex, RH13 6LH (not mail order).

For seeds of P. mirabilis try Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria, LA12 7PB, for plants: Anmore Exotics, The George Staunton Estate, Petersfield Road, Havant, Hampshire.

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