When you think of a tropical landscape, the first plants that most likely come to mind are palm trees, plumeria, beautiful flowering shrubs like crotons, plus wide-leafed foliage like heliconias. There is another plant that is equally abundant in tropical landscapes that can be glossed over. However, it is one of the most important types of plants when pulling a tropical landscape together. These plants are the bromeliads.
When I first started incorporating a tropical look into parts of my garden I didn’t plant bromeliads. At the time I believed they would require too much water and that the maintenance would catch up to me. As the years went on I realized that long-lasting perennials are a much preferred option over the yearly replacement of annuals in the garden. Finding low-growing, colorful perennials can be challenging. Hence my first bromeliad plantings. I wish I had started buying and planting them sooner. Like almost every plant group, there are representatives for all kind of planting needs. There are bromeliads that can handle all the water you can give them and even ones that are xerophytic. There are bromeliads that love the sun and ones that grow better in full shade. Some can be planted in poor soils and still others are entirely epiphytic. The point is: the thinking that bromeliads are tropical, water-loving, colorful plants with spiny edges isn’t entirely true.
Southern California can be challenging for bromeliads when you make the wrong selections for your microclimate, irrigation availability or sun exposure. One bromeliad that really doesn’t care about any of that is Aechmea blanchetiana. It is quite possibly the most bulletproof bromeliad for Southern California. Aechmea blanchetiana is one of the larger bromeliad species and even though it is endemic to Brazil’s Atlantic forest, I can vouch for its cold-hardiness. Mine suffered no damage when it saw 28° F during the winter of 2007. Online you can read reports of Aechmea blanchetiana taking frosts and lows of 26° F with very little damage. It has proven for me to be a great way to get a hardy, colorful, long-term perennial into the garden.
The vibrant yellow or orange colors stand out in a landscape. A great example showing how much color Aechmea blanchetiana can add to a landscape is a planting at a friend’s house – I did a tour of his garden a few months back. It makes a bold statement when planted like shown below.
While Aechmea blanchetiana can grow in shade, you will lose the rich colors, as the yellow coloration will turn to green. I find this bromeliad to be a true sun lover along coastal Southern California. Inland you will want a little protection from the hot sun. If you want to add some contrasting color to your garden, grow Aechmea blanchetiana in mostly sun and you will be rewarded.
One great characteristic that most bromeliads have is that they include a free replenishing supply of additional plants. Aechmea blanchetiana, when happy, will pup profusely and provide you with more plants than you will ever need over the years. In fact, every plant that is in my garden started from a single pup almost 10 years ago. I get so many pups now that I can’t give them away fast enough and many end up in the trash.
As I mentioned earlier, Aechmea blanchetiana has a great varying degree of water tolerances. This plant is just as happy in a tropical landscape as it is in a xeriscape. Yes, you can plant them in a xeriscape with minimal supplemental watering. You just want make sure they get some drip irrigation every week or two. The watering this plant below gets amounts to just an accidental misting from an MP Rotator sprinkler head. Only towards the end of summer when it gets hot does it begin to shrivel up to some degree. So I hand water it once or twice during heat waves and it does fine on its own the rest of the year. I also think this bromeliad looks great complimented with rocks, which xeriscapes should have anyway.
Many of the colorful leafed bromeliads have simple, or even just plain ugly, flowers. While Aechmea blanchetiana flowers won’t win a beauty contest, they’re certainly attractive enough to demand attention. The showy part of the Aechmea blanchetiana flower stalk is actually made up of clusters of red and yellow bracts. These flower stalks can reach as high as 5 feet tall and eventually open small nondescript flowers. This flower spike can last as long as a few months. Like all bromeliads, once that particular plant flowers, it will die soon after. The good news is that it will take a few years before each plant flowers, and as I mentioned above, it will produce plenty of replacement pups before it does die.
If I were to have a complaint about Aechmea blanchetiana, it is that due to its large size it will store a lot of water in the cups when they get regular sprinkler irrigation. In my yard this makes for the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos. It is easy to kill the larvae, but with the amount of plants I have now, it is too time consuming to run a regular maintenance routine. And frankly I haven’t really noticed any more mosquitos in my yard than in anyone else’s. Still, every few months I will put a drop or two of Malathion in each cup and that kills current mosquito larvae and prevents others from hatching. This works until the concentration of the Malathion becomes too diluted due to the regular irrigation.
Before I close out this post I wanted to show a red-leaf variety of Aechmea blanchetiana. This one is called Aechmea ‘Pinot Noir.’ It use to be difficult to find but has become more available the last couple of years. While I don’t find the color as vibrant as the common yellow, it is nice to be able to mix up the colors.
So who else grows Aechmea blanchetiana? What are your experiences with it? Please share in the comments section below this post.