Caring for Bromeliads

It has become a tradition at the Exotic Garden that the first plants to be moved to their winter quarters are the Bromeliads on the evening of the last garden open day. This is not to say that they are particularly delicate or tender as in fact they are remarkably durable plants. You can never be sure when the weather will take a turn for the worse and as there are so many tender plants here we have to be prepared. If you only have a few tender plants, keep a close eye on the forecast and if it remains mild leave them be. Its always sad to have to dismantle the garden in its prime but there are too many cherished plants to take any chances. The hundred strong collection of Bromeliads take centre stage adorning the steps to the front door of the house to be admired at every pass. When the time comes for winter preparations to begin this seems as good a place as any to begin.

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A selection of the Bromeliads displayed on the steps to the house. Deep purple leaves of Neoregelia sp., pink star shaped inflorescence of a Nidularium sp., spotted maroon and cream Bilbergia cultivar, bright red Neoregelia tricolour, bronze, narrow leaved Cryrtbergia rubra and the gold and green striped Bilbergia ‘Melon’.

Bromeliads are a diverse group of plants originating from tropical and sub-tropical regions of the Americas. The most common and ornamental Bromeliads are the rosette forming species capable of holding a reservoir of water in the vase formed by the tightly overlapping leaf bases. In their natural habitat they would be found growing as epiphytes high in the canopy of equatorial tropical forests. Here the roots serve primarily as anchorage, known as hold fast roots, and all the nutrients required by the plant are absorbed from plant and animal detritus which fall into the vase. It doesn’t rain continuously in the rain forests and their lofty location puts them in the searing equatorial sun. As a consequence they are remarkably drought tolerant and its important to bare this in mind when overwintering them in cool temperate gardens.

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The deep purple almost black fluted vases of Bilgergia ‘Darth Vader’. These cylindrical species are from much more arid habitats, their shape serving to conserve water. Known as geophytes, unlike their arboreal cousins the can be found clinging to rocks and forming large terrestrial mounds.
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Neoregelia ‘Tossed Salad’, one of the larger tank forming Bromeliads. These bruits form treetop reservoirs in the forests canopy harbouring arboreal crabs and tree frogs. Over time the can grow so large that the bring crashing down entire bows.

From May to October the collection of vase or tank forming Bromeliads are displayed outside in full sun. There are many cultivated varieties with striking colour variations and patterns which are intensified by placing in direct sunlight. The collection here are grown in terracotta pots in 100% bark chippings and throughout the summer months they’re watered regularly. Free drainage is important as the rosettes, although filled with water, can easily rot from the base if kept soggy. As low maintenance plants go they rank pretty high though when it comes to winter they certainly aren’t frost hardy. They will however tolerate much lower temperatures than their equatorial origins would suggest. The killer combination when overwintering most tender exotics is the combination of cold and wet together. As each plant is moved to the poly tunnel for the winter its vase is emptied out, any detritus is removed and any brown lower leaves and spent rosettes are cut off. They are placed on the bright side of the poly tunnel and left dry all winter, it couldn’t be easier. The tunnel here is heated to around 7C minimum, however on the coldest nights the temperature has dipped close to zero without incident. During the lengthening days of spring while there’s still a risk of frost but the strengthening sun is heating up the tunnel by day pay close attention to signs of drought stress. The leaves will begin to curl up along their length, loose their glossiness and begin to go brown at the tips. Little by little start refilling their vases until all risk of frost has passed and they can be returned to the garden.

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Aechmea blanchetiana. This is one of the most stunning Bromeliads to grow and an perfect example of the importance of sunlight in developing the pigments in the leaves and thus their full character. A. blanchetiana, as below, has stunning gold to dark orange foliage. This specimen grown from a pup this spring has spent the summer in the filtered light of the poly tunnel shaded by other plants.
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Aechmea blanchetiana. The more sunlight this plant receives the richer the colour. In tropical locations the foliage becomes almost red. This is an adaptation to prevent damage from solar radiation, akin to getting a tan. Over winter when light is at a premium there is no reason for the plant to invest in the pigmentation and so they revert to green.

The rosettes of Bromeliads are monocarpic, meaning they only flower once and then die. Often the spent rosettes persist for some time but eventually senesce as nutrients and vigour are diverted to new pups that form at their bases. The fading rosettes can be cut out taking care not to damage the newly emerging pups. Alternatively the new pups can be removed once they are one third the the size of the parent rosette. A sharp knife should should be used to get as close to the stem as possible. Plant these firmly in bark chippings, keep their vases full and place them somewhere bright and warm to establish.

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The largest of the Bromeliads in the collection, this Aechmea is now at least four feet across. Bedded out in a jangly corner for the summer it will be dug up and re-potted in the autumn. Before lifting it is bound up by duck-tape to protect from the saw-toothed leaf margins and so it will fit through the door to the greenhouse. Despite its size the root system is comparatively insignificant and despite the annual it continues to thrive.

Heading West

The Barrier Highway heads across the Western Plains to Broken Hill and the deserts of South Australia. Leaving the Warrumbunbles shrinking in the rear view mirror the landscape opened out with big skies and the road tapering to a point on the horizon.
Wild flowers along the road side.
The Dry grassland to the far west of New South Wales.
One of few plants in flower, the flowers tough and waxy to the touch, presumably to guard against desiccation.
The smart and tidy Post Office building in the tiny town of Wilcannia half way along the Barrier Highway. This is the only smart building in the otherwise dilapidated and dying ex-mining town now left by the way side.
 

A few of the empty dilapidated buildings along the high street.

The Warrumbungles

Some of the spectacular granite bluffs known as ‘The Warrumbungles’ formed by volcanoes 13 to 17 million years ago, of which 90% have eroded away leaving only the toughest remnants standing sentinel over the predominantly flat landscape.
After to many months working in the orchards I’ve finally saved what I need to continue my travels. I finished working in September and went on a whistle stop road trip around a small portion of Australia, and still clocked over 10,000km. I’m now in Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina wait for for my Antarctica cruise to depart.
From Stanthorpe in South East Queensland I headed south west through out back rural New South Wales to the deserts of South Australia. I then turned north on the Stuart Highway to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. I hadn’t the funds or time to make it all the way up to Darwin, so turned east back into Queensland to the tropical coast and the Great Barrier Reef. Finally heading south down the east coast to catch a flight out of Sydney to South America.
In the centre of the north eastern quarter of New South Wales is the Warrumbungle National Park. Here a group of precipitous rocky bluffs, remnants of past volcanic activity, rise dramatically out of the flat savannah grassland that predominated the surrounding landscape. The park is reputed to be incredibly diverse in flora and fauna owing to its varying elevations and its location between the dry grassland inland to the west and the wetter forest stretching off to the east coast.
Looking down on one of the most distinguished features of the park ‘The Bread Knife’.
Views across the peeks of the park and looking out across the western plains, flat to the horizon and where I was headed.

Some of the plants growing on the bright, exposed, rocky parts of the park.

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Unknown.
Unknown.
Unknown.
And flowering in the dappled light of the cooler forested valleys floor.
Clematis sp.
Acacia sp.
Black snake soaking up the rays in a dry creek bed.
Beautiful patterns created by the many Lichens.

Main Range National Park

Sunlight piercing the canopy illuminates the palm fronds in the dense rainforest.
Birds-nest ferns perch high up on the trunks of the tallest trees.
The Cunning Gap it the pass that links Brisbane to the east with the agricultural regions to the west of the Great Dividing Range, a string of mountains and extinct volcanoes which runs the length of the eastern side of the Australian continent. Any streams flowing to the east quickly flow into the pacific but water flowing west takes a long journey inland and out to the Southern Ocean, although it may not make it that far during drought. The pass was discovered by Allan Cunningham (1791-1839) who incidentally was chosen by Joseph Banks to collect plants for Kew Gardens. He arrived in Australia in 1816 and under took many plant hunting expeditions in Tasmania, New South Wales and Queensland, identifying many new plant species. The pass was opened up in the 1830’s, a vital link between communities though treacherous due to the steep unstable terrain which still poses problems today.
Looking up through a stand of palms (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana).
 
Looking up the trunk of a Strangler Fig tree which is one of the most prominent tall tree species.
 
Higher up the pass where the forest is more light and open.
 
Looking up a tall Hoop Pine (Auricaria cunninghamii) draped with mosses.
A young orchid among the mossy branches.
 
Unusual bulges on the trunk of a tree.
 
This picture was actually taken in the Greenstone Valley in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. My juvenile side felt that it would pair up well with the previous picture. Gota love nature!
 
Passing clouds.
Fronds.
The tough waxy leaves of a tiny epiphytic orchid that ad fallen from the canopy.
The spent flower spike of a Spear Lilly (Doranthes excelsa) on the rocky outcrops that break above the treeline.
Looking up to the summit.
The craggy rocks are the plug of a long extinct volcano which are peppered with Spear Lilies and Grass Trees.
 
Looking to the north to the sheer cliffs of a once vast volcanic creator.
 
Looking out to the east towards Brisbane.
Plectranthus species.
 

Sundown National Park

I had visited Sundown National Park on the Queensland, New South Wales a few time but not from the eastern entrance which is only accessible by four wheel drive vehicles. I ignored the signs and drove in regardless and needless to say didn’t get too far before I had to hoof-it. From where I left the car it was a good two hour hike into the gorge so I was expecting something reasonably spectacular as a reward. It turned out the gorge was more of a cliff, and when you think of ‘red rock’ you imagine the colour of the interior and Ayres Rock. The gorge/cliff is the edge of the volcanic granite that characterises this region which is grey-brown but coloured red by lichens. Hopefully I will be able to rustle up a four wheel drive one weekend and explore a bit further into the park.
Red Rock Gorge.
The black stain of Red Rock Falls which must have only just dried up as there was still a pool at the top quenching the thirst of a herd of goats. As well as goats, I saw several wild boar and two dear all non native to Australia. Apart from a few roos the native fauna illuded me.
The road into the park through sheep country.
Driving through the bush before the road became to rocky.
Acacia sp. in flower throughout the bush are the distinctive colour of the winter months.

Girraween in Winter

Banksia spinulosa var. neoanglica (New England Banksia) in full bloom beneath the granite boulders of Girraween
Here’s a few more pictures from Girraween Nation park. Being mid winter now, the changes from the summer months are subtle. Frost morning and the dry days have left the grass and bracken in the openings golden and russet toned but little else has changed greatly. Acacias, Banksias and Legumes take advantage of the cooler months to flower and will soon be followed by the main spring flowering as the frosty morning disappear. Change here is marked more by wet and dry, and the passing of bush fires. Following the wet summer and and lush growth which is now going crisp in the dry winter weather poses a greater risk for fires than usual of which several large ones are being fought right now around Queensland.
Banksia spinulosa var. neoanglica (New England Banksia).
The woody seed capsules of the New England Banksia waiting for the heat of a bush fire to open. Curious boulders among the Gum trees.
Looking out from the Castle Rocks that rise high above the tree-line, yellow acacias sp. flowering in the foreground. 
Leucopogon melaleucoides (Snow Bush) and Acacia venulosa (Veiny Wattle, Woolly Wattle)
Pultenaea hartmanii (Stanthorpe Pea) and tiny white fungi sprouting from a dead twig.
Patterns in the bark. The second reminds me of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’.

The Scream.

Grazing roos.

The Underground Stream

The smooth surface granite boulders covering the path of the underground stream, polished by years of rushing water.
The underground stream at Girraween National park is one place I didn’t get around to exploring until now, in mid winter. Its still rather warm. Spring is just around the corner and the spring flowers are what this national park is renowned for aside from its massive and curious granite features. The underground stream flows over a vast expanse of flat granite which has been eroded over tens of thousands of years into smooth polished curves and bowls where once just a thin crack existed. Huge boulders have broke off the face of the granite cliff face and the stream disappears beneath these but has eroded and polished away enough rock to climb through. The stream is no more than ankle deep now but walking through the forest to the along side the stream many small trees and shrubs were laid flat and bundles of twigs and grass hung in the tree a good meter or more above head height, a sign of how high and fast the water was rushing through at the peak of the flooding in January this year. Huge areas of grass and shrubs growing in the thin soils on top of the granite were rolled up like giant Swiss rolls by the force of the water.
The surface of the polished granite appears like leather compared to the coarse greyish unpolished stone. Lichens and minerals stain the under side of the granite shelf like a giant wave frozen in time.
The path into the park. The bracken browned by frosty mornings.
Granite boulders among the bush and  the peeling bark of a Gum tree.
Curved forms of the granite where Bald Rock creek first starts to carve its way down through the granite and a water fall where the stream disappears beneath the fallen boulders.
There are many large bowls which are carved out larger and larger during each flood by rocks caught up in the eddies within them which rush around like a washing machine. The bowls and the rounded rocks within them have a fancy geological name but whatever it is it has long since slipped from my mind.
A curiously unnatural feature. I guess it is where the huge expanse of granite, which was created by the slow cooling of a giant under ground magma chamber, cracked and was filled by subsequent lava. Don’t take my word for that.
Leionema rotund folium (Round-leaved phebalium) and Mirbelia speciosa subsp. Speciosa (Showy Mirbelia).
Because of the intermittent rainfall and subsequent intermittent flow of Australian streams and river, they form a series of interlinked pools and marshes rather than a continually flowing channel. That is, at least before the intervention of man clearing the forests and dredging and damming the streams to make the most of every last drop of water in a drought. Sheltered by the forest and stained by tannins these pools create some beautiful reflections.

Tougher Than I Thought

A Stags Horn Fern growing quite happily in an unexpected place.
The Stags Horn Fern is a native to the warm, wet forests of the east coast. I have seen trees festooned with them in the warm damp air and dappled light of the coastal ranges as well as in the steamy glass houses at Kew. As a child I brought one as a pot plant which once removed from it perfect climate controlled glasshouse in Holland, it slowly turned yellow, went crispy around the edges and bit the dust. I suspect the central heating and lime scale in the water weren’t to it‘s liking. There also happens to be a rather fine specimen growing in the crux of a tree in the school yard opposite the orchard where I am pruning. The temperature in town was -7oC the morning I took these photos and the Stags Horn Fern was growing quite happily out in the open. So it seems they are pretty tough after all.
As I like growing exotic plants back in the UK, it’s always interesting to see the limits to which exotic plants will tolerate and grow happily. Talk to any seasoned exotic plant enthusiast and you will find that ‘cold’ is not just ‘cold’. There is wet cold and dry cold, not to mention the duration. A few hours at -7oC in the dry may not be as bad as a few days at -1oC in the wet. Here the temperature regularly drops below freezing but never remains there for too long, and very little rain falls throughout the winter months. To try and coax one through a winter in the UK, it may have to tolerate many days of freezing and wet conditions. Finding the right micro climate is the key. I used to grow Echium pininana successfully through the winter planted close to a wall where the night storage heater was mounted on the inside. Enough heat made it through the wall to keep the worst of the frost away. If you can get this spectacular triennial plant from the Canary Islands through two winters it will produce towering cobalt blue spires of flowers. I suspect there will be very few gardens in England this year with Echiums in flower.
One of the largest Stags Horn Ferns I have seen growing in the frost free coastal town of Kerikeri in Northland, New Zealand.
So it seems most of this year in Australia will be spent in Stanthorpe. At leas I’ll get to see the seasonal changes of this part of the country, if not the whole country in little pieces. It seems the changes are quite subtle with the predominant vegetation being evergreen. The introduced tree species of the gardens and orchards give away the seasons.
Defiant of the cold is a large cactus tree standing rather incongruously amongst the bare apple trees.
My icy cherry picker and early rhyme frost. Fortunately at this latitude it soon warms up when the sun breaks the horizon.
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