American Jewels

What Is A Bromeliad?
History of Bromeliaceae in Cultivation
Economic Uses 
Life In the Rainforest

What Is A Bromeliad?

The Bromeliad family, Bromeliaceae, also known as the pineapple family is a tropical group of plants native to the New World, distributed from the southern United States to southern Argentina and Chile, and one species, Pitcarnia feliciana, is native to West Africa.  This group of extraordinary plants grows mainly in trees in tropical rain forests and moist mountain forests, but some species are also terrestrial.  Most people are familiar with the edible bromeliad fruit, the pineapple, Ananas comosus, and the North American native, Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides.

The bromeliad family consists of about 50 genera and about 2000 species of different colored, shaped and sized plants.  Most bromeliads are herbaceous.  Many are characterized as being epiphytic, meaning that they do not need to derive nutrients from the soil and therefore live on tree branches, rotting stumps, or cacti.  This does not mean they are parasitic and derive nutrients from their hosts, but they manufacture their own nutrients from air-borne particles and decaying plant and animal life around them.  Their roots function to absorb moisture from the humid air of the forests and to support the plant.  They attach themselves very tightly to their hosts.  Instead of roots absorbing nutrients and water from the soil, some species have white scales that act as sponges covering the plant.  Sometimes these scales form bands which make the foliage of the plants quite decorative. 
Many epiphytic bromeliads have specialized leaf-based tanks in the center of the plant to collect water.  The leaves spiral and arrange to form a rosette cup that will hold water without leaking.  The bromeliad can absorb water from the tank with specialized leaf hairs called trichomes.  In some species more water will be retained by the curved lower leaves than from scoops.  There are some bromeliad species that are not epiphytic at all; they are terrestrial and grow on rocks or in soil. 
Many bromeliads are collected and cultivated as greenhouse ornamental plants.  This is mainly due to the fact that many species have a striking, brilliantly colored inflorescence that rises from the center of the tank rosette.  After a long bloom period, an equally beautiful multiple fruit develops.  Many bromeliads die after the long flowering and fruiting stage.

The History of the Bromeliaceae in Cultivation

When Christopher Columbus took his second voyage to the New World in 1493 he discovered the pineapple that was being cultivated in the West Indies.  He brought a plant back to Spain and it was accepted and became popular.  The cultivation of the pineapple did not take place in Europe until the seventeenth century when glasshouses stated to become popular.  These houses were quite expensive, so the hobby was strictly for the rich.  It was recorded that pineapples were grown in the kitchen garden at Versailles toward the end of 1700.  In 1753 Linnaeus published his Species Plantarium, in which he listed fourteen different bromeliad species in two genera, Bromelia and Tillandsia.  Later, newer genera were introduced and in the late eighteenth century the French botanist, Auguste Jaume de Saint-Hilaire established the family, Bromeliaceae. 
The most interest in bromeliads was centered in France and Belgium in the nineteenth century.  Publications on the family were being published as fast as expeditions were being sent to collect and introduce more species.  At the end of the nineteenth century Europeans had started hybridization of bromeliads.  Many genera were used, but the two most popular were Vrieseas and Billbergia, because of their beautiful flowers.
After World War II the bromeliad interest turned to the Americans.  In 1935 Mulford Foster of Orlando Florida and his wife made many trips to South America to find and introduce new bromeliads.  He is the person responsible for collecting and introducing more bromeliads than any other person in history.  He brought back over 200 species. In 1950 the new popularity that bromeliads were gaining led to the founding of an international society, the Bromeliad Society.  Currently, attentions are being focused on the identification and conservation of bromeliad species that live in endangered habitats. 

Economic Uses

The most economically important species in the Bromeliad family is the pineapple, Ananas comosus.  The crop is grown commercially in the tropics and sub tropics worldwide for fresh sale, canning, or juice production.  The fruit offers a good source of Vitamins A and B.  Various species of other bromeliads including the pineapple are used to produce fibers from the leaves.  Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides is used in the upholstery industry as a substitute for horsehair.  Many species are grown as ornamentals for temperate region houseplants.


Ananas comosus

Tillandsia usneoides

Life In the Rainforest

All living things in the rain forest work together in a mutualistic relationship to sustain life.  Animals depend on trees for food, shelter and protection, while the trees depend on the animals, smaller plants, and microorganisms for nutrients.  Huge tree branches provide platforms for a multitude of epiphytes- plants that grow on other plants but donít draw nutrients from them-such as ferns, bromeliads, orchids and vines.
Bromeliad species, although not wide spread in the forests, play a very important role in the life of the forest.  The bromeliads act as a tiny oasis in the canopy, for they attract many animals which drink from, hunt at or live in the bromeliad tank.  Salamanders and tree frogs come and lay eggs there, and young tadpoles grow and subsist on resident insects and larvae.  While the plant provides vital water for an array of animal species and supports a complex community of living things, the waste and the carcasses of many of these animals in turn provide the plant with nutrients.  When one element of this cooperative is eliminated the whole process is terminated and vast forest biodiversity is lost.
It is estimated that out of the original 4 billion acres of rain forest around the world, less than 2.5 billion acres are left, and the rate of destruction is so high that there will be no rain forest left within 50 years unless the management of these treasures changes drastically.  This is a world wide problem because the intact rain forests are e the center of biodiversity on this planet.  Loosing them means loosing one half of the earthís species.  If the deforestation of the tropical rain forest is not stopped, the resultant climate changes, species lost, and stolen indigenous cultures will be immeasurable and virtually irreversible.

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