Beautiful, bold and hardy too

Last updated 12:26 05/10/2012
YEAR-ROUND COLOUR: A range of Kiwi bromeliads’ vriesea hybrids grow at Totara Waters garden in Whenuapai, Auckland.

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When it comes to year-round colour and ornamental value, vrieseas deserve centre stage in the home garden.

These exotic superheroes are members of the bromeliad family, complete with intricately patterned leaves and coloured leaf tips (fingernails). They have the most spectacularly decorated leaves of all bromeliads, and quite conveniently have no teeth at all. The unarmed leaves are soft and flexible - a benefit when weeding or working around them. If you have a taste for bold, structural foliage plants, vrieseas fit the bill.

Mostly from tropical South America, vrieseas come in numerous sizes and colours and may be grown indoors or outdoors in sheltered spots.

“We always used to think vrieseas needed to be protected from frost, but as time goes by we hear reports of how they survived quite cold conditions,” says Andrew Maloy of Kiwi Bromeliads. “We've heard of them surviving temperatures as low as minus 4deg without damage, but I recommend you take that as the exception rather than the rule. Under the shelter of taller trees and shrubs, where frost isn't going to settle on the foliage, they should tolerate light frosts without the need for frost cloth covers. In more exposed areas a single or double covering of frost cloth should help considerably.”

Colour is one of their selling points, but there are a couple of factors, aside from genetics, that influence this. One is age. As the plants mature the colour and patterning intensifies.

“At point of sale the plant is usually around 2 to 3 years old and only just beginning to reach its potential,” he says. “As it grows larger and older the colour and patterning will only get better. And once they reach 2 to 3 years old, vrieseas are not as slow-growing as you might think. Once planted, they can easily double or treble in size in 12 months.”

A second factor that affects colour and pattern intensity is light. While vrieseas grow well in shade, they are equally as successful in bright light and actually will produce more intense colouration.

“Experiments by local gardeners over the last few years have led us to realise many vrieseas can stand more sun than we had previously imagined,” he says. “So as a general rule, colour and pattern will be brighter and more intense in good light than in shade.”

But too much sun on a continuous basis tends to bleach colours, and may cause yellowing.

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“As a guide, partial shade with exposure to sun for part of the day seems best for most varieties, but each garden will have its own local variations.”

Genetics, of course, have some say in how your plants cope in sun. Plants bred from a shade-loving species, such as Vriesea hieroglyphica, may be less tolerant of sun than others.

Looking after plants is a breeze. Vrieseas are not heavy feeders. Assuming they're planted in reasonably fertile garden soil or potting mix, they do not require any extra feeding. A mulch of compost with some added sheep pellets will improve soil conditions if necessary.

“However, if the foliage looks exceptionally pale or growth is very slow, then feed sparingly with a general garden fertiliser, preferably one containing relatively high levels of K (potassium),” he says. “Excessive N (nitrogen) compared to K will lead to greener foliage with a loss of colour intensity, but as the N is used up colours will return.”

If you do apply fertiliser, Andrew suggests doing so during a period of active growth, such as spring and early summer when there's plenty of moisture in the soil.

For container plants, use a good quality potting mix and apply a slow-release fertiliser in spring and the occasional liquid feed.

Vrieseas are great for folk who don't have time to water their plants every five minutes. Once established they withstand drought. You don't need to water them at all during winter and during summer the occasional watering will see them by. Too much water, or letting their feet sit in water encourages root rot, so make sure your soil is free-draining.

Another point in a vriesea's favour is that they seldom have problems with pests.

“With scale on a container plant you could spray with Confidor. But as with all bromeliads, avoid using oil sprays or any copper fungicide spray, and keep them well away from water that may run or drip from tanalised timber, as this causes irreparable damage and can kill plants if it gets into the central growing point,” says Andrew.

Vrieseas, like most bromeliads, are monocarpic. That means once they flower, the plants die. But it can take several years for them to flower.

When the pups are big enough you can sever them from the mother plant and pot them up. Or you can leave them where they are and let them form a large clump. Then just remove the old foliage as it dies off. More plants for centrestage.

Visit the Kiwi Bromeliads website:

- © Fairfax NZ News

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