Colorful characters

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

With all the color, this bromeliad
supplies fragrance to boot.

You’d think that the Tillandsia cyanea, now flowering in the Conservatory, would have given its all in creating the bold pink inflorescence that opens lovely purple flowers. It is, after all, relatively small as plants go and those colors are anything but dim. But no, if you happen by it on a warm morning, you will discover its most appealing quality: the fragrance of cloves.

Commonly called Pink Quill, this bromeliad from Mexico and Central America is a delight for the senses. It grows well in a container (you’ll find it in a small pot carefully hung from the conservatory’s south wall, upper level), and likes some low nitrogen fertilizer from time to time, but at ¼ strength. So little care; so much in return!

Fleshy bracts cradle female flowers.

Another bright color is in the edible orange bracts of Freycinetia cumingiana, a vining plant related to Pandanus or screw pines. The orange is suggestive of a Dreamsicle – remember those? – and enfolded inside are their upright flower stalks. The inflorescences of Freycinetia are held on the ends of the vining branches, rather like old-fashioned candles on evergreen boughs at Christmas. The particular species comes from the Philippines. It is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are on separate plants. Our Conservatory plant is female; the male flowers are quite slender and a lighter color. It is a contrast not unlike the difference between female and male cycad cones.

Historically, bats pollinated many of the species in their natural habitats – from Sri Lanka to Polynesia – and bat-pollinated plants, such as this and the sausage tree, may expose their flowers in a way that bats easily can reach them without being caught up in a mess of leaves. Some of the important pollinating bats have become extinct, but birds and even a ‘possum in New Zealand have filled the niche.