And now for something completely different!
Hilary Collins BSc. (Hons)hort., M.C.I.Hort.
All photos (C) Hilary Collins or Don Billington
Originally published: January 2013 in The Edge
Every Picture Tells a Story. No, I have not become a music critic. This is the name of the Bromeliad and Tropical Plant company owned by award winning specialist Don Billington, who puts on the most amazing exhibits of these exuberant tropical plants at RHS shows.
Within hours of arriving at the floral marquee, Don recreates a replica, miniature rain forest, complete with dark mysterious pools, petrified timbers dripping with 'Spanish moss’ Tillandsia usneoides and a myriad of striking epiphytes, each one a work of art in its own right. Needless to say, he is always awarded a gold medal!
The bromeliads (Bromeliaeceae) are a fascinating family. All 3,170 species are native to the tropical/sub-tropical Americas, except for one species Pitcairnia feliciana, found on the west African coast (rumoured to have been exported on a birds foot!). Size ranges from the tiny epiphytic ‘Spanish moss’ to the terrestrial forms such as the edible pineapple (Ananas comosus) and up to the largest species Puya raimondii reaching a statuesque 10m tall, when in full flower!
Terrestrial forms have roots more or less as we know them, anchoring the plant in the soil; whereas the epiphytes usually attach themselves to rocks and tree branches via wire-like roots, harvesting all the nutrients and moisture they require from the humid forest air. In Bolivia, the latter can be seen as silver clouds festooning the telephone lines.
The foliage of this plant group is striking in every case. Usually in rosettes, they can be spear-like needles or broad and fleshy, sharp or soft, smooth or curly whirly and in the most exotic range of patterns and colours of any plant on the planet. Leaves can be any shade of green, silvery, rose pink, maroon/burgundy, golden; with or without cream, white, yellow or red variegation, banded, striped or spotty. However, the flowers are not to be outdone by the jazzy foliage.
Large flattened ‘spear-shaped’ bracts of full-on hot pink with violet-purple flowers along its edge (Tillandsia ‘Goliath’) or Guzmania ‘Libby’ with tequila sunrise goblets, the bracts begin with scarlet rising through orange to sunshine yellow, whilst other flowers resemble mini exploding fireworks of gold and scarlet (Guzmania dissitiflora).
So how do you grow these wonderful plants in your not so tropical home?
Don suggests you start with a couple of easy species such as Tillandsia mora and Guzmania ‘Teresa’. Display three or five plants, in a simple setting, by securing them to a piece of drift wood with plastic electrical cable ties. The base of the plant needs to be in contact with the wood, where it will form ‘rooty attachments’. Don advises against using glue as this inhibits ‘rooting’ and florist wire corrodes over time and becomes toxic to your air-plants. Finish you setting off by artfully concealing the join between plant and wood with a little sphagnum moss held in place with the aid of fishing line. The moss is aesthetically pleasing and also holds moisture around the plants.
Alternatively you could secure a Neoregelia paucifolia on to a piece of wall mounted cork and drape the join with some Spanish moss. Position your new living works of art somewhere dappled, out of strong sunlight and frost free, such as a bathroom or frost-free conservatory. Keep a little brass mister close by and spray once a week and that’s all they need. Definitely my kind of houseplant! You can even place them under a tree, in the garden, over summer. Furthermore, these little driftwood-airplant settings make great table decorations for Christmas dinner or a summer barbecue, instead of the usual flowers. (Charlie's sister-in-law used Bromeliads as centerpieces for her tropical-themed wedding).
Finally, I asked Don about his company name, ‘Every Picture tells a Story’.
He is a huge Rod Stewart fan and this album was enormously successful for the singer. Don hoped a little of that success would rub off on him, when he started his bromeliad business and he was right. Long may it continue!
To purchase air-plants and bromeliads, visit www.every-picture.com
Don holds the national collection of Aechmea, Billbergia and Neoregelia and a permanent display of his plants can be seen at Lydiate Barn Nurseries, Southport Road L31 4EE