These pineapple relatives are easy to grow, whether in patio pots or indoors or - in the mildest of climates - in borders
Guzmanias and vrieseas - two popular members of the Bromeliaceae family - are almost as low-maintenance as plastic plants. In fact, at times, you'd swear they were plastic. Water spots don't burn any of these plants, and bugs don't chomp them. Their straplike leaves, smooth, shiny, and thick, fan out symmetrically around a central cup (called a tank) to form a neat rosette. Their dramatic flower heads have the same tough perfection. Shaped like tubes, arrowheads, or stars, they come in fluorescent shades of red, pink, orange, and yellow, and they last for months without fading or wilting. Often, vrieseas also have variegated foliage, with stripes (sometimes horizontal) or blotches.
During their bloom period, these bromeliads can do well on very little care. Just fill up their tanks with water occasionally. Mist, if you remember. If you only intend to keep the plants as long as they're in bloom, which is what many people do - the mother plant dies after it finishes blooming - that's pretty much the extent of care. If, however, you want to try for another generation, you can; mother plants produce new plants called offsets, or pups, before they die. But you'll have to give the plants slightly better treatment to keep them going.
Guzmanias and vrieseas make ideal container plants for indoors or for shady patios. In frost-free climates such as Hawaii or coastal California, you can plant them in the ground in lightly shaded spots. Dr. Leonard Kent, founder of Kent's Bromeliad Nursery, has filled his garden in Vista, California, with naturalized bromeliads. "I didn't amend the soil, I rarely feed them, and they don't need to be watered very often," he says. "If you don't have to worry about frost, they're incredibly easy."
According to Kent's Bromeliad Nursery ( www.kentsbromeliad.com), these bromeliads thrive under the following conditions.
LIGHT. Ideally, both guzmanias and vrieseas should have bright light but not direct sun. The reflected light of a patio is often perfect, as is a bright room indoors. However, if you want the plants to decorate a shady outdoor alcove or a fairly dark room indoors while they're blooming, go right ahead. They'll survive gloomy conditions for months without serious harm. Just regularly rotate them back into brighter spots.
WATER. Irrigate these bromeliads by pouring water directly into their tanks. Pour enough so the excess spills out and moistens the soil below. Don't water again until the surface of the soil is dry to the touch - roughly every one to three weeks, depending on conditions.
HUMIDITY. If you're growing bromeliads in an arid climate, either indoors or outdoors, they'll appreciate having their leaves misted weekly or more often to increase humidity. As an alternative, place a couple of inches of pebbles in the saucer underneath the pot and add a little water.
FERTILIZING. Guzmanias and vrieseas are not heavy feeders. Fertilize them once in spring, twice in summer, and once more in fall by applying a 20-20-20 or 20-10-20 formula liquid fertilizer at half or one-third strength directly into the soil.
TEMPERATURE. These bromeliads flourish when air temperatures are between 40° and 90°, though they can survive temperatures outside of this range for short periods. When temperatures soar, give outdoor plants deeper shade and extra humidity. When frost is predicted, move plants indoors.
After flowering, snip off the bloom stalk to encourage the mother plant to create pups. When an offset forms, let it grow to at least half the size of the mother plant before separating. Then remove both mother and pup from container. Gently pull away soil to see where the two are joined. Pull pup away from mother plant or prune, cutting close to the base of the mother plant.
Replant mother plant immediately so it will produce more offsets. Place pup in shady area until it forms a callus (one to two days); then repot in a loose, fast-draining potting medium such as a cymbidium mix that is about 50 percent peat moss.