From Regelia to Neoregelia – A Plant for the Holidays
December is a month when we typically channel our thoughts from the outdoor tasks of gardening to the indoor festivities surrounding the Holidays. Of course, this should not mean that we totally ignore plants, since colorful arrangements and house plants make the Holidays ever more festive! For the past several years, I have focused on houseplants that provide color and ease of culture for December, but also remain attractive for the months and years to come. Continuing that tradition, a very colorful and easily grown houseplant for the Holidays are the many selections of Blushing Bromeliad, botanically called Neoregelia.
As the common name reveals, Neoregelia is a member of the Bromeliaceae or Bromeliad Family and is native to rain forests along the coastal regions of Brazil, as well as locations throughout northern South America. Plants are found at elevations near sea level to upwards of 5,000 feet. The plants are actually epiphytic in nature, growing amongst the tree canopies as opposed to a more traditional soil based or terrestrial culture. Growing in tree canopies allows the plants to receive higher light intensities, since the floor of rain forests are heavily shaded from the layers of dense foliage in the canopy above. The plant name honors Eduard August von Regel (1815-1892), who served as the Director of the St. Petersburg Botanic Garden in Russia from 1875-1892. Originally, the genus was named Regelia by the Swedish Botanist Carl Axel Magnus Lindman (1856-1928) in 1890. Unfortunately, the German botanist Johannes Conrad Schauer (1813-1848) had already assigned this particular genus to a group of plants native to S.W. Australia in 1843. This repetition of the genus name was resolved in 1934 by the American botanist Lyman Bradford Smith (1904-1997), who focused upon the taxonomy of plants in South America and in particular the Bromeliads. He cleverly renamed the genus Neoregelia –Neo is Greek for new, so the direct translation is the ‘New Regelia’!
Blushing Bromeliads feature a whorl of foliage, typically 6-10” in diameter and height, with each strap-like leaf about ½” wide. The leaves tightly overlap the neighboring leaf at the base, creating a water tight tank or cup – a trait shared with many other members of the Bromeliad Family. The roots are designed to anchor the plants to tree branches, rather than absorb nutrients and water, which became the function of the foliage surrounding the tank. The small pool that collects in the center of each leaf whorl attracts frogs and other tree top dwellers who escape their terrestrial predators by seeking sanctuary in these arboreal hideouts. In fact, these animals spend the majority of their lives in the Neoregelia tank and through depositing their bodily waste in this pool, they actually provide the nutrients necessary for these Bromeliads to grow! The Neoregelia flowers appear just above the water level in the center of the cup and although only a few open at one time and close inspection is required, they do provide an object of curious interest. It is actually the role of the colorful foliage surrounding the tank, not the flowers, to attract pollinators. The foliage is also what attracts and makes the plants so appealing to gardeners! Once the original plant flowers, it actually withers and dies. Fortunately, it also produces a ring of stolons or horizontal shoots from the base of the cup, with each stolon giving rise to another plantlet. A stolon is pictured above and is the horizontal ‘stem’ that is growing beyond the right side of the container. These young plants, typically called ‘pups’, quickly enlarge and fill-in as the mother plant fades, creating an attractive whirled clump (as seen in the image below right).
With over 100 species and more than 4,000 cultivars of Neoregelia, there are certainly plenty of selections from which to choose! The selection I felt particularly appropriate for the Holidays is the variegated sport of Neoregelia ‘Fireball’, named ‘Fireball Donger’ (pictured at right). It features whirls of green and white stripped foliage with a blush of red added to the uppermost whirl of foliage. This red blush becomes more intense near the base of the leaf. Most selections of Neoregelia cannot tolerate full sun during summer, which is understandable considering the plants live within the rainforest canopy. This selection is an exception and the brighter the light, the more brilliant the red colorations become, with the most vibrant colors appearing in full sun. Following the Holidays, plants should be placed in a window receiving southern exposure, ensuring the foliar color will be retained until the plants can be once again placed outside for the summer.
Another colorful form for the Holidays is Neoregelia ‘Mo Peppa’ (pictured below right). The green leaves are spotted with bright red dots that resemble specks of red pepper. The specks are very randomly arranged near the tip of the leaf, becoming more numerous near the base of the leaf until they ultimately coalesce into a solid, deep red. Again, a most appropriate color pattern for this time of the year.
Blushing Bromeliads prefer a well-drained and porous soil media that best duplicates the leaf and bark duff of their natural habitat. Fertilizer should be kept to a minimum, as that will encourage exuberant and floppy growth. Following flowering, some of the ‘pups’ can be removed once they are 1/3-1/2 the size of the mother plant and potted up individually, should you wish to propagate the plant. Within 2-3 years, they will bloom and the cycle will begin again! Although plants prefer and are very tolerant of very high humidity levels, they are also very adaptable to indoor moisture levels. They do benefit from sitting atop a flooded bed of gravel, as that will elevate the ambient humidity for the balance of the winter. Plants look great in hanging baskets as they gradually expand and cascade down. However, they also look great as center pieces or colorful adornments to tables throughout the home during December and into January. With a fun story that gardeners can share about how it became the ‘New Regelia’, selections of this genus are great additions to the Holiday table. From all of the Neoregelia loving staff at Rutgers Gardens, we wish you and your family the very best for this Holiday Season and for the New Year to come!