Bromeliads Make Good Plants to Grow with your Orchids
MY ZEAL FOR ORCHIDS DEVELOPED from a general interest in tropical plants that was rekindled some years ago as I began seeking plants for a sunroom in a new residence. Initially, a few orchids provided highlights in my jungle of exotic foliage, but they thrived and caught my attention. I began adding more (you know how it goes), and within a year, virtually every tropical plant had been replaced with an orchid.
Orchid growers often seem to prohibit any nonorchidaceous plant from their orchid-growing environment. I suppose this is because we often feel we lack sufficient room for all the orchids we would like to have, let alone any other plants. There is one group of plants, however, that I’ve reintroduced among my orchid collection, not only for their intrinsic interest, but also for a couple of useful services they can provide. These plants are members of the genus Tillandsia.
Tillandsia is the largest genus in the bromeliad family (Bromeliaceae), a rather bizarre and varied family whose most familiar members are the pineapple and Spanish moss. There are more than 400 species of Tillandsia. Most come from Latin America, a few from the southern United States. It is an extremely varied genus of epiphytes, many of which share their habitats with orchids.
GREAT VARIETY Tillandsias vary considerably in color, size and shape, and inhabit both moist and dry tropical environments. The ones from dry habitats make the best orchid com-panions. They generally have smaller foliage and stature, are often of interesting form and color and are also stress tolerant.
The foliage color among these is often grayish to silver-white, due to structures on the leaf surface called trichomes, which are particularly well developed in this group. The trichomes transfer rain and humidity from the leaf surface to water storage cells within. They also reflect sunlight from the leaf, thus helping to keep it cool and prevent excess drying. These epiphytes are ideally suited for mounting onto bark or a small branch, and many are perfectly happy just sitting on a bench or shelf.
Undoubtedly the most familiar among the Tillandsias is the diminutive Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), small plants of which can slowly develop into long strands of gray-green growth. Of course it is not a moss at all and, in the right season, the sharp-eyed may be able to spot its tiny yellowish flowers tucked among the gray foliage. This is an excellent plant for any orchid-growing area, as it is a great indicator of adequate humidity. If you can grow Spanish moss, you can be certain that you have enough moisture in the air to satisfy most orchids; just be sure to wet down the Spanish moss whenever the orchids are watered. (There actually are a number of orchid growers who employ humidifiers and mist systems in order to grow their plants, and they are not all indoor growers.)
In contrast to the pendent Spanish moss, other Tillandsias have more or less upright growth habits, frequently with foliage arranged in a rosette pattern. Most of these thrive in moderate to very bright light. Tillandsia xerographica is a personal favorite among this type. Its long foliage is silver-green and twisted. Tillandsia latifolia has shorter, straighter leaves of a similar color.
Textural contrast is provided by species with fine, grasslike foliage. Ranging from Mexico to Bolivia, Tillandsia juncea is somewhat variable in form throughout its habitat. Most examples have linear, grayish-blue foliage. Tillandsia setacea is also grasslike.
FLORAL CHOICES Members of the genus are also known for their beautiful flowers. Coloration varies from vivid purple and red to rich yellow and pink, as well as other shades. As with orchids, flowers in some species last a week or two, yet others may last for months. Some are fragrant.
The principal flowering season for mature plants is late autumn through early spring. Unfortunately, flowering signals the slow demise of the parent plant, as each blooms just once. However, offsets, commonly called pups, are produced during or soon after the flowers, and these will grow to replace the parent.
I grow several types simply for their fascinating shapes and forms. Tillandsia caput-medusae resembles a small sea creature with fuzzy, twisted, green-silver tentacles. Tillandsia bulbosa has smoother, wavy foliage, often with red or purple tints. The one that always elicits comment, however, is Tillandsia duratii, which has long glaucous foliage that is tightly recurved at the ends, enabling it to wrap around twigs and branches in its native habitats, thereby climbing to sunny exposures in its host trees.
Tillandsias are excellent plants to have at hand when orchid show time rolls around. Their dramatic textures and architectural forms combine interestingly with orchids and the foliage colors often provide harmonious relief from too much green. Few plants complement orchids as well, particularly when used in smaller tabletop exhibits. Similarly, they are good choices for use in table centerpieces featuring orchid plants or flowers.
It is pretty easy for orchid growers to become very single-minded with their horticultural pursuit. Adding a few fellow tropical epiphytes such as the low-maintenance tillandsias to the mix is a good way to expand your focus.