New Bromeliad Garden at the Estates
November 29, 2021
By Karen Maxwell, Horticultural Specialist
In two years’ time, Edison and Ford Winter Estates will have the single largest collection of bromeliads anywhere in South Florida … that is if Tom Cowell, orchid and bromeliad specialist at the Estates realizes his dream. I recently found him in the new Bromeliad Garden staking a three-foot-tall flower bloom for the bromeliad that inspired his mission – a rare specimen with a striking red flower, Hohenbergia stellata “Marie Valentine,” which was donated by local nursery legend, Betty Ann (Kinzie) Prevatt in 2019. Fast forward two years, and nearly 95% of the bromeliads our visitors see have been donated by Cowell – or he has cajoled friends and growers to donate plants. Today, the Bromeliad Garden now makes up a substantial part of what used to be Edison’s research garden area, located just inside the entrance from Marlyn Road. This area is perfect for bromeliads because the ficus trees provide protective shade for the plants.
The plant family of bromeliads (Bromeliaceae) contains thousands of species and all are native to the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the New World, such as Central America and South America, of which the best-known bromeliad is commercial pineapple (Ananas comosus).* When explorers first found pineapple cultivated in the Caribbean on the island of Guadeloupe, they wasted no time distributing the delicious fruit around the world. By the late 1500s, large pineapple plantations could be found in India, China, the Philippines and all tropical zones of the Old or Western World. Pineapple has been so widely cultivated for centuries around the globe, botanists are no longer able to identify a wild or un-cultivated pineapple, and today they are considered a cultigen, a plant with no known wild parent.
In the late 1800s, there was something of a pineapple fever happening along the East Coast of the U.S. Prior to Edison’s purchase of his land in Fort Myers, an article by Sherman Adams for the Fort Myers News Press in 1885 documented coconut and pineapple plantations along the banks of the Caloosahatchee River. By 1885, coinciding with the year Edison purchased his initial 13 acres, almost every one of the families in Fort Myers (pop. 369) were growing pineapples and shipments from Florida were going for 60 cents per pineapple in New York! Upon their purchase of the riverfront acreage, Thomas Edison along with friend and business partner, Ezra Gilliland decided to get in on the action and planted 1,500 pineapples. Whether they grew the pineapples for shipping and profit, or for the fibers the plants produced is not certain, but along with planting cassava* for its latex (also used to make tapioca), these two plants gave rise to the largest experimental garden in the western hemisphere. By 1908, Cuba was out-pacing Florida in volume and pricing of pineapples and in 1910, a disease called Red Wilt decimated the Florida pineapple market, followed by two killing freezes in the winters of 1917 and 1918 and the Florida commercial pineapple industry never recovered.
It appears that Edison, with the help of his caretaker, wished to continue to grow pineapples to feed his family and staff but suffered erratic success. In 1907-1908, Edison brought in large quantities of dried clay and his property caretaker, Ewald Stulpner, tilled the muck into the sandy soil in the very spot where the Bromeliad Garden is now featured. Stulpner also built a shade house for nearly 400 Smooth Cayenne Pineapples, but lost them all in one year. Given how easy it is to grow pineapples in our loose soil, it is not known if they succumbed to root rot (pineapples should be started in early Autumn to be well established before the rainy season) or to soil borne plant parasitic nematodes. Now, most of the Smooth Cayenne Pineapples are grown in Hawaii and known as Hawaiian pineapple – these will soon re-appear in the Estates’ gardens.
Surpassing the pineapple in Florida, ornamental bromeliads have taken an important place in South Florida gardens for the wide assortment of colors, shapes, ease of care, and the versatility for use in a landscape or container. Bromeliads are tropical or sub-tropical plants, and most are epiphytic (growing in trees); although, there are several species that are terrestrial, where their roots anchor them to soil instead of trees. Almost all bromeliads reproduce vegetatively by pups or stolons, a type of stem that grows from the main plant. When you visit the Bromeliad Garden, look for many varieties that appear to be climbing up a host tree. If you mount them to a tree in your garden, take care to avoid using any copper wire, as bromeliads are highly sensitive to copper. An important key in succeeding with bromeliads, is to be sure to match the species or variety of bromeliad to its natural light requirements – this is the only way to ensure emergence of the best colors and leaf patterns.
The Estates’ Bromeliad collection is home to varieties that represent the three major sub-families that collectively are Bromeliaceae.
- Pitcairnioideae – These are generally terrestrial and the oldest family of bromeliads, and are frequently spiney but some have grass-like foliage. They do not have a center leaf rosette for trapping water and produce winged seeds. They are grown for interesting foliage. Dyckias* which are somewhat cold-hardy and Pitcairnias* in this sub-family do well in full-sun situations.
- Tillandsioideae – This is the largest group, is primarily epiphytic, and has smooth edged leaves with fuzzy or hairy seeds dispersed by wind. Air plants* (tillandsias), Spanish Moss* (which isn’t Spanish or a moss and is one of eighteen bromeliads native to Florida) and soft leaved Vriesea* and the popular Guzmania* are found in this grouping.
- Bromelioideae – Home to the widest range of bromeliad plant forms, these strong plants are the most frequently cultivated, sporting serrated or spiny leaf edges and the seeds and berries distributed by birds. This family includes the pineapple, which in nature, is pollinated by hummingbirds; Billbergias,* Bromelias,* Neoregelias,* compact Cryptanthus* and Aechmeas* which alone, account for 25 percent of the species in this sub-family.
Given the vast number of species available, it is understandable why collectors become so passionate about these colorful and easy-care plants. As primarily epiphytic, the roots of bromeliads – as in orchids – only serve to anchor the plant, and water and nutrition is collected in the center of tank-type bromeliads. To some gardeners, there is concern that these tanks provide a breeding ground for mosquitos. While mosquitos are a fact of life in Florida, an understanding of the type of mosquito and some preventative maintenance tips for bromeliad collectors should allay most fears. The mosquito larvae found in 98.8% of Billbergia pyramidalis,* a so-called tank-type bromeliad, was part of a study conducted by the University of Florida in Daytona, Tampa, Vero Beach and Miami, and determined to be the larvae of “Wyeomyia” a species of mosquito that does not transmit disease to humans. According to world-renowned entomologist, Dr. J. Howard Frank, Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida, there are three ecological steps one can take to minimize mosquito breeding if concerned: 1.) Do not allow grass clippings to get into the water reservoirs of planted bromeliads where it can collect and stagnate; 2.) Avoid tight, compact colonies of Neoregelia bromeliads where the rotting flowers will also stagnate and attract larvae; and 3.) Flush the reservoirs weekly with fresh water which will interrupt the mosquito larvae cycle. A couple of drops of vegetable oil every few weeks in the water reservoir will also smother any larvae, but do this sparingly to avoid hurting the plant itself. For further information on this subject, visit the Florida Council of Bromeliad Societies.
We hope you will soon find an opportunity to stroll the meandering paths through the enchanting Bromeliad Garden in the shade of a historic canopy and learn more about this popular tropical plant group. On December 4 and 5 we will host the annual Bromeliad Show and Sale of the Caloosahatchee Bromeliad Society. Experts and growers will be available to answer questions and offer plants for sale. If you would like information for landscaping with bromeliads, please contact me and I will be happy to email you the sheet.
If you wish to donate any unusual bromeliads to the Estates’ gardens, please contact the Horticulture Department. To learn more, enthusiasts can join the Bromeliad VIP Collectors, and the Caloosahatchee Bromeliad Society on Facebook.
*indicates plants in the Edison and Ford Winter Estates Gardens