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Tropical bromeliads in the nursery at Kew

Nick Johnson
28 June 2011
Blog team: 
Nick Johnson meets the Tropical Nursery’s very own bromeliad expert, Marcelo Sellaro. Find out more about bromeliad cultivation and get suggestions to try at home.

Recently a request came through our facebook page for some information on the cultivation of bromeliads, so I ventured forth with our resident expert, Marcelo Sellaro to look at this unusual exotic family and it’s cultivation at Kew.

A panoramic photo of the tropical Bromeliad zone in the Nursery
Behind the scenes in Kew's Tropical Nursery

Marcelo has been growing bromeliads since he was a young boy growing up in the city of Sao Paulo, at the age of 18 he took the opportunity to study at Sau Paulo University and majored in agronomy. As he studied he became fascinated with a subject that became his first horticultural love, bromeliads!

After university, Marcelo decided to broaden his knowledge and he came to Kew to study cultivation techniques as an intern. That was 11 years ago, he never left. Kew has a burgeoning collection of epiphytic bromeliads, which is housed in one of the larger zones on the west side of the Tropical Nursery complex. Most of the house is occupied by large A-frames on which are hanging hundreds of bark pieces, each one a home to an accession of this diverse family. The majority come from the South Atlantic rainforest, an area under serious threat due to deforestation for slash and burn agricuture and logging concessions. Our collections come from a dedicated network of botanical gardens and amateur enthusiasts, such as Elton Leme, a man who has devoted more than 20 years to the rescue and rehabilitation of many unique species from this area. Kew serves as an ex-situ back up for the family collections.

Photo of Marcelo checking his plants

Marcelo Sellaro looking after bromeliads in the Tropical Nursery

Almost exclusively from the New World, the general public best know this family for one of our favorite tropical fruits; 'the pineapple'. It has a diverse range of genera, from the 'air plants' in the genus Tillandsia to the carnivorous bromeliad that lives atop the Tepuis of northern Venezuela, Brocchinia reducta. Many species of bromeliads live in trees, high up in the canopy, so Marcelo mounts his specimens onto Cork (Quercus suber) bark, in much the same way as we mount orchids (see previous blog, ‘Mounting Orchids onto Bark’). Propagation of individuals is undertaken by removal of ‘pups’ (offshoots) once they are in their second year. The base of the pups are dried a little to prevent rot and then rooted in a coir based compost with added bark. After a year of growing happily in a pot, the plant can then be established on a bark. From seed, Marcelo broadcast sows onto a coir/sand mix, and germinates them in a closed cabinet which gives a very hot humid environment.

Watering of bromeliads is easy in a moist greenhouse with high humidity. Marcelo simply mists the moss around the base of the plants daily during the summer, and keeps the distinctive tanks that form at the base of the leaves topped up with water. Even in winter the plants are watered daily to counteract the drying effects of the heating pipes.

I asked Marcelo what he recommends for home cultivation, he said "try Vriesea splendens hybrids ('flaming sword plant') and Guzmania lingulata ('crimson star'), as these are tougher and can contend with the difficulties of lower humidity and light of a household environment. These plants can be bought in pots and the soil should be watered sparingly, but they really appreciate the misting of their leaves and don't forget to keep those tanks watered! The majority of bromeliads are plants with sympodial growth, so, once the plant has flowered and the bracts start to fade, cut it down to the ground to allow the developing pups space to develop."

Parts of Kew's bromeliad collection is on display in the Princess of Wales Conservatory and the Palm House for the public’s delight. Marcelo has been instrumental in setting up these displays and is proud to share little tastes of the Brazilian wilderness!



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