By ROBIN ROBINSON Key West Garden Club
A two-acre utopia in the back roads of Sugarloaf Key is home to Jackie Thomas and her delightful garden of bromiliads. Thousands of bromeliads are housed throughout her yard and propagation shed for her business, Island Girl Bromeliads.
Their cup shaped interior leaves form rosette circles. Long stalks erupt from the center of the rosette along with brightly colored bizarre flowers. The foliage of bromeliads is the most widely colored and patterned in the plant world. Leaves vary from needle thin to flat, broad plates. Colors can be maroon, gold, red, yellow, purple, cream, green or white. Leaves may be spotted or striped with purple, red or cream. Despite all of the color varieties, most bromeliads are easy to identify because of their spiral, rosette shapes.
In nature there are 3,170 of them and they are as different from one another as human physiognomy; each has its own peculiar size and shape but they are united with the usual circular format of their leaf structure. Bromeliads are considerably more diverse than most plant families. Some are only 2 to 3 mm across while others are ten feet tall. They can be found at sea level and on mountaintops, in rain forests and deserts.
Some are epiphytes like Spanish moss, which is a bromeliad, but is neither Spanish nor a moss or shaped in a spiral rose. Others are lithophytes, which grow on rocks. Most, however, grow in the ground. Bromeliads are one of the most recent plant species to have emerged. Most are found in the southern states, South America and one lone species which remained in Africa when the continents split.
The leaves form cups called tanks in which water is retained. These tanks of water are hosts for tadpoles, frogs, salamanders, crabs, mosquitoes, ants, damselflies and even smaller bromeliads. Three hundred different species of animals are dependent on bromeliad tanks.
"They are hosts to two kinds of mosquitos. The good news is that they are not native to the Florida Keys. The bad news is that no-see-ums do in the tanks but can be controlled by flushing the tanks," advised Thomas. All bromeliad leaves are covered with scales called trichomes, which absorb moisture and protect against solar radiation.
Aztec, Mayans and Incas cultivated the bromeliad known as the pineapple. Christopher Columbus brought the pineapple back to Europe on his second voyage in November, 1493. He found it in Guadalupe when he went ashore to explore a deserted Caribe Indian village. According to Pineapple History. His men found cooking pots filled with human body parts with fruit and vegetables nearby. Evidently having no compunctions against cannibalism, they made short work of the stew. "They also recorded the curious new fruit which had an abrasive segmented exterior like a pine cone and a firm edible pulp."
It became so popular among the near-rich of the American Colonies that hostesses could rent a pineapple as a centerpiece for the table to impress dinner guests. The art world embraced the pineapple and it graces many a fence slat and post in the Keys.
The pineapple is the only edible bromeliad. It is full of vitamin A and B. The stem is also useful as bromelian, an ingredient in meat tenderizer, is extracted from it.
Another variety found in Thomas' garden is Acanthostachys pitcairnoid. It bursts into a bright orange-red pineapple shaped flower. Others are on thin sticks. The Little Harve has red and yellow inflorescences. Bromeliads bloom only once.
An incredible delicate lavender and red bloom graces the Bilbergia 'flamenco.' Another splashy white and pink bloom is on the Aechmea maculate. Brilliant pink bracts surround the upright cone that holds the yellow flowers. Flowers open from the bottom up over a period of three weeks.
Another giant gem in the garden is the Androlepsis skinneri at whose base leaves are green and then fade to a deep rose. The white flower must be blooming to determine whether the plant is male or female. Both must be in the garden in order to produce viable seeds. Most bromeliads do not require both male and female plants to reproduce as they grow pups, producing perfect clones of the mother plant.
Most of the bromeliads at Taylor's home survived the flooding that came with Hurricane Wilma. "Once I get everything in pots I don't have to do anything else. I like designing the space," Thomas said as she moved the pots around in a section of the garden.
Jackie Thomas has hundreds of these colorful plants and they are for sale. Call for an appointment. 305 788-8765.
The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to pull weeds, learn to propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. until noon on Mondays.
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com.