Editor of Bromeliana, Newsletter of the NY Bromeliad Society talks with Opinion8ed about his long-term interest in these tropical plants
Herb displaying bowl hand etched by his grandaugher with bromeliads
Opinion8ed: Anyone who visits your urban apartment in Jamaica, Queens, NY can’t help but be impressed with the number and variety of Bromeliads on display everywhere you look. So your collection is proof that a plant originally native to much more tropical climates can thrive in a much less hospitable environment. How many plants and varieties do you have in your personal collection?
Herb: I have cut down on my collection in the past few years but not too long ago I was growing about 200 plants in pots and about 200 Tillandsias mounted on cork bark.
Opinion8ed: How difficult is it and what is the secret to successfully growing them indoors?
Herb: Bromeliads are excellent house plants because they can quickly adapt to conditions that are different from their native tropical and subtropical environments. Most of the pot plants are rosette shaped with a tight center that can hold water, so if the pot medium is watered and water is placed in the center reservoir, the plants can go for 2 weeks without requiring water. The plants mounted (with glue) on cork bark are soaked in the bathtub every 10 to 14 days for about an hour. The plants are grown both with window light and under fluorescent lights. Most bromeliads are epiphytes that grow on tree branches and shrubs in rain or cloud forest habitats. From this you can tell that the roots need aeration, so the potting medium needs to be friable to provide air to the roots. We use all kinds of media that are so porous that when watered, the water drops down immediately to the bottom. Such media include fibrous peat moss, shredded cedar bark mulch, chopped fir bark or a mixture of them. Straight houseplant potting soil will tend to pack down after watering and will stay too wet and will rot out the roots of a bromeliad, so if it is used it must be mixed with lots of perlite or bark chips to provide aeration.
Opinion8ed: OK, so if you provide the proper environment it sounds fairly straight forward. How much time does it take you to care for your plants?
Herb: Once the plants are potted or mounted the above time indications suffice. But of course, the plants are addictive; once you get hooked you have to have more and different species and hybrids and you start experiments and writing about them, so you find that willy nilly, you can become totally involved to the exclusion of other activities and responsibilities. I can safely say that now I’m controlling the plants, not the other way around.
Opinion8ed: So I guess it’s true what they say… once you dabble in simple epiphytes, you’re soon hooked on the harder bigeneric hybrid stuff like X Cryptbergia and X Guzvriesea. One of the striking things about the bromeliads on display in your apartment is the presentation. Some types (e.g., the epiphytic varieties such as Tillandsia) are mounted on bark without any soil… how do they get the nutrients they need to thrive?
Herb: The water they soak in has a lot of fertilizer that is in solution, and this is absorbed by the plants. Also, Tillandsias have a coat of specialized trichome cells that can absorb free floating molecules of water and various chemicals that are found in the air.
Opinion8ed: How long do bromeliads typically last? What is the oldest plant that you’ve had?
Herb: After they flower, the mother plant will usually survive for 2 to 3 years while it produces vegetative offsets (called pups). During this period the lower leaves will start dying back, but I’ve had plants produce a pup even when it had only one, almost dead leaf left. The offsets are removed when they reach about one-third the size of the parent and are potted up or mounted as independent plants.
Opinion8ed: Where do you get your plants?
Herb: Our Society [The New York Bromeliad Society] makes plant orders from nurseries and we also have a monthly plant sale table at meetings.
Opinion8ed: How do you select which varieties to grow? Do you look for new/rare varieties or ones that have not yet been grown indoors?
Herb: I’ve been growing bromeliads for about 50 years and have grown literally thousands of plants. In recent years I have concentrated on acquiring plants that have reputations for being very difficult to grow out of habitat. It is a challenge I enjoy confronting. My concentration now is less on new beautiful hybrids and more on experimenting with techniques for better growth.
Opinion8ed: Where do you recommend the more casual bromeliad fan purchase their plants? And which varieties should they look for when just starting out?
Herb: Big chains such as Home Depot, Costco and even big supermarkets all feature bromeliads at very decent prices. They are usually in flower. The casual grower should try growing these to produce pups and then try to remove the pups and grow them on to flower.
Opinion8ed: I recall you mentioning that you once knew John Laroche, the actual orchid thief… was he a bromeliad thief too? What can you tell us about him?
Herb: I knew John Laroche from various world bromeliad conferences we both attended. He was a compulsive Cryptanthus freak. But I never got to know him personally to comment about him.
Opinion8ed: Tell us about the NY Bromeliad Society… how many people are members, how often do you meet, what sort of activities do you sponsor, etc.?
Herb: During the “green” 1970s and 1980s we had as many as 200 members that we acquired from various plant shows we put on. We sold plants at the shows, and people became members to buy the plants. But most of that membership was a paper membership. Now we average 35 to 40 members a year. We have monthly meetings with different educational topics, conduct plant orders once or twice a year, sell and exchange plants at meetings and put on occasional shows.
Opinion8ed: You mentioned your monthly newsletter, Bromeliana (which you edit). How often is it published and what sort of articles can we find there?
Herb: Bromeliana is published 9 times a year in color. We print both horticultural and botanical articles. The horticultural material is educational and instructional and the botanical articles deal with science, both botany and taxonomy.
Opinion8ed: Bromeliads have developed an international following and you’ve given numerous lectures on them over the years. Where are some of the places you’ve gone to speak on Bromeliads?
Herb: I’ve given talks in Australia (Cairns), London, Hawaii, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Corpus Christi, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, Atlanta and Boston.
Opinion8ed: With the time it takes to care for your plants, participate in club activities, and publish the newsletter do you have time for other hobbies? What other things do you spend your time doing?
Herb: Sylvia and I do Scottish Country dancing and folk dancing three times a week and are now also taking a Tai Chi class. We frequently attend the opera, theater and cinema. We used to travel abroad once or twice a year, especially to Italy, but we’ve put off traveling in the past few years. Now that we are both in our mid 80s perhaps we’ve slowed down, but we also still have a very full plate of activities and I look forward to having an occasional day off for doing nothing but reading (usually on Wednesdays and Sundays).
Opinion8ed: Wow, I don’t know where you get all the energy to keep up that pace – I get exhausted just thinking of all those activities. Thanks for spending some time with us and hopefully you’ve converted a few Opinion8ed readers to the world of bromeliads.