What is a Bromeliad?

Bromeliaceae is a large family of over 3,200 species in 56 genera widely distributed in the New World from Virginia and Arizona in the United States south to Chile and Argentina, and at elevation sea level to over 3,000 m. A single species is found in West Africa, Pitcairnia feliciana.

The family was named after Olaus Bromelius (1639–1707), a Swedish medical doctor and botanist. The Bromeliaceae has been traditionally divided into three subfamilies based on foliage and fruit and seed characters: the Bromelioideae, Pitcairnioideae, and Tillandsioideae. More recent studies based on DNA show as many as eight major clades.

The bromeliad family is composed of perennial herbs that are terrestrial, saxicolous (growing on rocks), or epiphytic. Roots are usually present, but often poorly developed in the epiphytic taxa, serving mostly as hold-fasts. Most bromeliads have their leaves arranged in a spiral rosette, creating a “water tank” that collects water and debris. The leaves are also covered with specialized hairs (trichomes) that absorb water and dissolved nutrients, and may be heavily armed with spines or completely lack spines. Many insects and other organisms use these reservoirs for their home. Inflorescences are frequently showy and bracteates. The actinomorphic to strongly zygomorphic 3-merous flowers with six stamens are usually pollinated by birds and insects, less often by bats, and possibly by wind in a few species. Seeds typically are dispersed by wind or gravity in the capsular-fruited species and by birds, mammals, or less commonly insects in fleshy-fruited species.

The pineapple, Ananas comosus, is the only agriculturally important member of the family, and is cultivated worldwide in tropical climates. A few additional taxa are cultivated or harvested from the wild for fruit or fiber for local use. Many species and artificial hybrids of bromeliads are popular ornamentals around the world, especially in tropical and subtropical areas.

The Bromeliaceae, largely through the efforts of the Mulford B. Foster Bromeliad Identification Center, has long been a core family of research and horticultural interest at Selby Gardens.