University of Illinois Extension


Ornamental purposes provide the primary use for bromeliads, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“Bromeliads are members of a plant family containing over 3,000 species,” said Jennifer Schultz Nelson. “They are native to the southern United States, plus Central and South America.

“Columbus introduced bromeliads to Europe when he brought pineapple back from the New World, making every wealthy European desirous of this delectable, tropical fruit.”
To date, however, no other bromeliad has been cultivated as a food crop. Several, such as Spanish moss, have been used as fiber crops and Spanish moss was once used to stuff furniture.

flower“Pineapple stems have also been used commercially as a source of bromelain, a protein-digesting enzyme used in meat tenderizer,” she noted. “This enzyme is also present in fresh pineapple. That is why gelatin prepared with fresh pineapple fails to gel. Bromelain breaks protein bonds that would otherwise solidify the gelatin.”

“Most cultivated bromeliads are kept for ornamental purposes. They appear widely different and grow anywhere from soil to thin air but, in fact, share some basic characteristics,” she said. “Their leaves are borne in a rosette, often forming a central cup that serves as a water reservoir.

“All bromeliads have some form of trichomes, or tiny hairs, on each leaf which increase the leaf’s surface area and ability to absorb water. Trichomes also help diffuse the hot sun in tropical habitats.”

When growing bromeliads, reproducing a given species’ natural conditions as closely as possible will naturally produce the best results.

“As a rule, most bromeliads will benefit from a well-drained potting mix, but terrestrial species can tolerate a little more moisture than epiphytic types which are often sold as ‘air plants,’” she said. “Bromeliad Society International ( suggests the following rule of thumb for light levels: soft leaf--soft light, hard leaf--hard light.

“In other words, a soft, flexible, often spineless bromeliad is probably native to the softly-lit understory of the forest, while a spiky, stiff, spiny bromeliad probably is home to bright but still filtered light.”

Most bromeliads flower only once on a central stalk or scape. They then produce new side shoots or “pups.”

“A useful trick for coaxing a bromeliad to flower is to enclose it in a bag containing a ripe apple,” said Nelson. “The apple releases ethylene gas that acts as a chemical signal to the bromeliad, triggering it to produce a flower.”