Aucklander Graeme Barclay is not only the outgoing president of the Bromeliad Society of New Zealand, he’s also one of its youngest members. Over two decades ago, when he was in his early twenties and first became hooked on these fascinating plants, no one in his circle of friends had any idea what he was enthusing about. Until he joined the society, he felt just a little alone with his new-found passion.
“My interest in bromeliads started when I built my first home, and there was suddenly a brand new space that needed landscaping. Coming originally from Kaitaia, gardens in my experience comprised mainly roses and shrubs, so when a friend gave me some bromeliads to get me started, they really took my fancy. When I discovered a little nursery not far from home selling more of these unusual plants, I was completely captivated. It wasn’t long before I realised you could think of any colour imaginable and you’d find a bromeliad that exhibited it. I kept finding new ones and thinking: ‘Wouldn’t that look fantastic sitting under one of my palm trees!’”
In his current garden, which he began around five years ago, Graeme uses bromeliads in a myriad of ways.
“I have epiphyte bromeliads growing on trees, bromeliads in hanging baskets, and ‘broms’ of different colours, shapes and sizes, clustered together. I’ve also totally covered the stumps of two huge oaks in bromeliads. My favourite plants also grow very well in pots, so I have a lot of container-grown specimens on my deck. Within half an hour, I can completely change the way my garden looks just by moving the pots around. It’s like being an artist!”
One of the first things Graeme did on his current property was build a large greenhouse on three levels. One of the ‘rooms’ is heated in winter and it’s where he keeps all his warmth-loving and rare species, many of which can’t be found in nurseries or public gardens.
“I’m a passionate collector and have even imported bromeliads from Australian nurseries. This process requires an import permit, and the bromeliads have to be quarantined for three months, so it’s an expensive exercise. But collecting bromeliads is a little like collecting stamps. You have all these ‘sets’ and you want to complete every one of them.”
Graeme is also a bromeliad breeder and has registered the names of a dozen plants he has developed himself. It’s a time-consuming business as raising bromeliads from seed to maturity can take three to four years, but he’s happy to devote the energy to his hobby, often popping home from work during his lunchtime to potter in the greenhouse. Graeme’s knowledge and experience, however, is not always an insurance policy against the occasional disaster.
“I was growing some Alcantarea imperialis, giant bromeliads native to Rio de Janeiro, where they grow on cliffs. I had them in pots in my courtyard and one evening, in the middle of winter, I forgot to cover them with frost cloth. That night the temperature plummeted to below freezing, and a couple of days later my precious bromeliads looked like pieces of cardboard. But they’re tough plants and it was really only the outer foliage that was damaged. I chopped back the dead leaves and within a year these beautiful broms were flourishing again.”
But if frost is such a spectacular problem, where does it leave those of us who live south of Hamilton? Graeme has some reassuring news.
“Bromeliads grow everywhere – from the snow line of the Andes to the Amazon Basin. Whether you live in a region that’s cold, windy and wet, or one that’s hot and dry, there’s a brom to suit. It’s just that cold-hardy broms may not always look like the ‘typical’ bromeliad. They can be quite large and spiny (like an agave or yucca), and don’t hold water, so they can grow perfectly well down south. The Invercargill botanical gardens [Queens Park] has a number of hardy Puya growing. They come from Peru, Bolivia and Chile, and they like the cold. Puya raiymondii is the largest in this family and has a flower spike up to 12 metres high. It takes about 150 years to bloom and is covered in thousands of small flowers.”
That’s a big brom – so what if your only growing space is a balcony or a conservatory? Graeme assures me bromeliads are perfect in these situations, too.
“In small spaces, hanging baskets or containergrown broms work well. Many small Neoregelia (they grow on short branches referred to as ‘woody stolons’) form clumps, like a lot of sun and tolerate a high degree of light. They come in beautiful golds, reds and crimsons and can look really stunning. Once you discover all the different niches that broms will grow in, you can start using your creative side to collect. It’s just a case of asking yourself what colours, sizes and shapes would go well in a particular spot, and finding the particular bromeliad that suits.”
With bromeliads becoming increasingly popular with landscapers, as well as featuring in vertical wall gardens where they go well with orchids and ferns, Graeme’s favourite plants are becoming better known by the day. From feeling like ‘the odd one out’, Graeme’s now experiencing interest in his collection from a wide range of gardening enthusiasts. To them all, he has a message:
“Join the Bromeliad Society and come to its meetings. You’ll find like-minded gardeners happy to share their wealth of knowledge. And you’ll likely pick up a few bargain plants to get you started.”
The Bromeliad Society of New Zealand Inc.
The Bromeliad Society has been running in New Zealand since 1960. The main Auckland group (around a third of members live in or just outside of Auckland) meets monthly on a Tuesday and its evenings feature guest speakers, competitions, a sales table and supper. There are also groups in Hawke’s Bay, Bay of Plenty, South Auckland and Northland. Each year, in mid-February, the society holds an annual ‘Fiesta’ in Auckland; a competitive show and sale. The society also publishes a monthly journal full of helpful articles.
Beginner’s guide to bromeliads
If you get the right plants as a beginner, growing bromeliads can be easy-care. That said, knowledge does comes into it, which is why it really helps to talk to those who can give you a few tips. Some of the best beginner bromeliads are those in the Vriesea, Aechmea and Neoregelia genera. These bromeliads all have a central ‘tank’ that stores moisture so you do need to remember to water them.
Bromeliads are very portable. Popped in a courier box, they’ll happily survive for several days without water, and reach you in excellent condition. This is why you’ll often find them on online trading sites. You can also source broms from bromeliad society meeting sales tables (some from just $3-4), from markets (from $5-10), and from nurseries. You may even be lucky enough to have a gardening friend who will give you a ‘pup’ (a young plant) off one of their own bromeliads.
- Many bromeliads can cope with a light frost, but put the wrong variety in the wrong spot, and you may find it turns to mush in winter.
- For a sophisticated look, try teaming bromeliads with cycads and palms.
- If you buy a bromeliad from a garden centre and put it straight out into the hot sun, it’s likely to get sunburned. Always place it in dappled light to begin with, gradually moving it into stronger light over a period of months.
Did you know?
- The most famous bromeliad is the pineapple. It was introduced from South America into Europe where it became a highly-prized fruit in the 1800s.
- Today, botanists are still discovering new bromeliads in the remote jungles of Central and South America.
- Some bromeliads are pollinated by ants and humming birds. Others open flowers only at night and are pollinated by moths and bats.