Billbergia nutans - Cactus Club

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Billbergia nutans

Plant of the Month > Species A to B

   In anticipation of Jerry Raak's program, I decided to highlight  
Billbergia nutans ("Friendship Plant", "Queen's Tears"), a very popular and widely grown member of the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae) for this month's "Plant of the Month"

  Billbergia Is a genus of approximately 60 species of mostly epiphytic or lithophytic bromeliads, which typically branch by rhizomes and offsets. The species are distributed from southern Mexico through Central America and through north, east and central South America, Many species are grown for their decorative panicles or racemes of beautiful, tubular flowers.

Billbergia nutans is probably the most commonly grown member of this genus: It is widely available, of very easy culture, tolerating a remarkably wide range of growing conditions, and flowers reliably every year for most growers. This species is epeipytic and is native to Paraguay, Uruguay, Southern Brazil, and northern Argentina.

   The  flowers are the crowning glory of this plant. The arching flowering spikes emerge carmine red to vibrant shocking pink, and eventually reveal pendulous clusters of flowers whose sepals and petals are curiously zoned in greens, carmine reds, and are edged in the most vibrant violet/indigo that I have ever observed in the plant kingdom. Fully opened flowers reveal golden "tears" of hanging anthers heavily laden with pollen.

Out of bloom, the plants are not particularly decorative, with multiple rosettes or coarse, somewhat grass-like leaves with barely toothed margins. The coloration of the foliage is typically bright green to greyish green (mostly depending on growing conditions - bright green foliage being produced on plants grown in moist and humid conditions, and greyish foliage is usually observed on plants maintained under drier conditions). Plants which are grown in especially bright light may produce somewhat reddish foliage, and, in some instances, some of the foliage may produce reddish reddish tones during the production of flowers.

   I do not pretend to be providing my plant with ideal conditions, I treat it in a similar manner as I treat the majority of my succulent plants, with two significant differences - I give this plant more frequent watering, and in the warmer months, when I move my plants outdoors, I do not place this plant in full sun, but put it in a place where it will get full sun part of the day, and shade part of the day. While most authorieties would frown on this regimen, it is a testimony to forgiving nature of this plant that it grows and reliably flowers for me every year.

   Most online sources suggest that this plant should be given a potting medium of an orchid mix (phalenopsis mix?). During the warmer months, the medium should be maintained moist to barely moist at all times, during cooler periods, it should be watered when the potting medium is dry, but the plant should not be subjected to extended drought (although it can survive periodic drought). A good portion of moisture and nutrients are taken up through the foliage, so frequent mistings and occasional foliar feedings are recommended. It is also recommended to maintain some water in the vase formed by the tight rosette of foliage.
   Bright but indirect light is best, and moderately warm growing conditions (to the low 80s) are recommended. This plant will bloom at any time of year, and presumably can bloom multiple times during the course of the year (my plant blooms in fall or winter). It is possible to induce blooms in this plant by incorporating some Epsom salts in its water, or (most commonly) by sealing the plant in a plastic bag with an apple for 7 to 10 days. Apples release ethylene gas, which initiates the formation of flower buds in this species - following this treatment, the plant should flower in one or two months. In my experience, the plants are monocarpic - each rosette flowers once only, and then produces multiple side shoots, the original rosette will persist for some time after that (sometimes years) but will never flower again. The side shoots will grow rapidly, and in my plant will frequently flower within the year. This species is readily propagated by removing and potting up these side shoots, which accounts for its name, the "Friendship Plant" where shoots were shared with friends.

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