There is one plant family that outdoes itself with amazing color combinations in many of its flowers. It is the bromeliad family, of which the most famous member is the familiar pineapple Ananas comosus. This is not to say that all members of the family have gaudily hued inflorescences. There are groups of gray-leaved species, such as Dyckia that have monochromatic orange (suitable for Halloween) flowers.
The fairly common (often on offer at supermarkets and discount houses) Aechmea fasciata, gets a little more outrageous with a truly astounding flower stalk bristling with spiny bracts the color of strawberry ice cream, this inflorescence will eventually support dozens of tiny tubular flowers. Each flower pushes its way out from among the scurfy bracts, at first a clear red bud that expands and fades to violet
That’s just one scenario; black, lapis, verdigris, chromium yellow, and scarlet are just as likely in the fantastic blossoms of other species in this genus. Not only are their flowers composed of a series of colorful structures, their leaves may vary from the deepest maroon to grass green and sport stripes and spots of gold, or red, or purple. The genus Vriesea also employs both mottled and striped leaves as well as some awesome flower spikes. The bracts carry the show, supporting mostly pale yellow flowers.
Other genera such as the family’s namesake Bromelia have nondescript flowers, but center of each plant may turn fire-engine red when in bloom. Popular as potted plants as well as in the landscape, are colorful members of Neoregelia. Instead of lifting their flowers aloft, these plants form a “tank” around the inflorescence. This tank is designed to catch rainwater and house the tiny blue-violet flowers. The modest flowers are not what draw a crowd of potential pollinators, but with their bases ranging in shades of pale pink through scarlet and purple, the enticement remains.
A third group of bromeliads inhabit some pretty unforgiving country high in the Andes Mountains. These terrestrial species are covered with silvery trichomes that snatch whatever moisture is to be had and reflect the harsh rays of the sun to protect against sunburn and keep the plants cooler. Of these, the genus Puya is the most widely known in horticulture and there are some stunning examples to grow. Puya alpestris is one such species. It forms a rosette of spiny-edged leaves that can be several feet across from which a spectacular flower stalk rises. Hundreds of tubular flowers in the wildest iridescent shade of green-blue open a few at a time over a period of weeks. So prolific is the nectar production of these flowers that the sweet stuff literally drips from the plant.
Many bromeliads grow happily in our area either as potted plants or in garden beds. Most nurseries won’t have a big selection, but there are specialty nurseries and mail-order sources available on line. The Bromeliad Society International web pages (http://bsi.org/) have lots more information about their natural history and culture, too.
Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to email@example.com.