Whether you know it or not, if you’ve ever toyed with growing a pineapple as a houseplant (or just brought a pineapple home), you’re already been introduced to the wonderful world of bromeliads. In fact, the pineapple is likely the most famous bromeliad in the world – but it’s definitely not the only one to try! If you have a dimly lit, lifeless room in your home that could use some cheering up, consider a bromeliad houseplant that’s suited to “shady” conditions. Featuring thin, glossy, green foliage, these plants prosper when they never have direct sunrays reach them – making them perfect for that desk or coffee table located over 5 feet away from the window.
A white glazed container turns the red-bracted flower stalk of Guzmania ‘Class’ into a houseplant class act.
Photo Credit: Carol Cloud Bailey
The crackled leaf pattern of a shade bromeliad contrasts beautifully with begonia foliage.
Photo Credit: James Burghardt
Vriesea bromeliads have long-lasting finger-, paddle- or tree-like flower stalks.
Photo Credit: James Burghardt
Cryptanthus zonatus (zebra star) needs bright indirect light, but not direct sunlight.
Photo Credit: James H. Schutte
A bromeliad is a tropical plant that clasps onto a rock or tree with its roots and catches sunlight, water and organic debris in its tufts or rosettes of foliage. Depending on the plant species (and there are more than 2,500 out there), each bromeliad is adapted to growing conditions that range from shady and humid to sunny and hot. Those plants that have soft, glossy, green leaves are best grown in shady locations, like what you’d find inside your home. (Direct sunlight is tolerated by only those with silvery, spiny or stiffer, cardboard-like leaves.)
Of the eight genera (or botanical groupings) of bromeliads most commonly grown as houseplants, Guzmania and Vriesea are best grown in bright to low-lit rooms. If you’re a bromeliad lover who can provide bright enough light to sustain foliage colors, two other genera are worth trying: Cryptanthus and Neoregelia. Generally speaking, if you already grow pothos vine, African violet, Chinese evergreen or peace lily in your home, a shade-loving bromeliad would make an ideal companion.
Shade bromeliads are culturally resilient. They’re epiphytes or terrestrial, which means they naturally grow on other plants or in well-draining, humus-rich sand. A good potting mix for these beauties is an equal ratio of peat, coarse sand and bark chips placed in containers rarely larger than 6 inches in diameter. Their roots are tiny and diminished, clasping onto tree bark or into loose soil. The foliage is often a rosette, with concentric rows of leaves that form a central lower “vase” or “tank” that holds and retains water, dust and debris. As long as these plants are grown in containers that have coarse media or well-draining soil and water is retained in their tanks, bromeliads endure as long-lasting, low-maintenance houseplants.
By far the most widely produced and marketed shade-tolerant bromeliad for the home is the Vriesea. There are 250 species, but the ones sold to home gardeners are well-developed hybrids and selections regarded for glossy green foliage and spectacular flower bracts of yellow, orange, red and pink (or combinations). Vriesea bromeliads naturally dwell in shade to dappled sunlight in the tropical rainforest. Selections like ‘Splenreit’ have striped leaves, making it a lovely specimen even when the red flower bract is absent. Blushed, speckled patterns occur on foliage of both ‘Nova’ and ‘Empress Michiko’. Plants that have spotted or silver leaves need more light than those with solid green foliage.
Sometimes called torch bromeliads, Guzmania plants have glossy, green leaves in a rosette with colorful bracts that look like the flaming Olympic torch. Numbering only about 150 species, these are dwellers of the shaded, cool, moist hilly rainforests. You’ll often see Guzmania in shopping malls and large building atriums. Their dark green, swordlike leaves are soft but contrast the two- to five-month-enduring flower bracts of red, yellow, fuchsia, violet or orange. This bromeliad genus tolerates the dimmest light in interior spaces – even better than Vriesea.
Earth stars, Cryptanthus, are terrestrial bromeliads, growing well in regular houseplant potting soil (as opposed to the loose bark or peat mulch that other potted bromeliads require). Although they’re not best for low-light areas like Vriesea and Guzmania, earth stars make their best foliage colors and stripes when light is bright, but the plants are out of the reach of direct sun – so about 5-8 feet away from a window. If light is too dim, the colors wane to mundane green, and the seasonal blushes of pink or red tones won’t appear. Cryptanthus would be a good indoor companion around blooming African violets or begonias. The tiny, white flowers are usually overlooked (tucked away in the base of leaves), but the ground-hugging, starfish-like form of this bromeliad is pretty.
Among the most magnificent bromeliads in terms of leaf colors and patterns, Neoregelia can tolerate low light but will slowly lose the vivid colors or patterns of the foliage if light is too low. If you have a spot that gets bright light close to the window and short durations of direct sun, a Neoregelia can be stunning. Flowers of this bromeliad genus are small and lavender, occurring on a prickly sphere in the middle of the leaf rosette, usually popping out of the water. Neoregelia cruenta, often called “painted fingernails” due to its leaf tip colors, grows well in dappled bright light and may retain its tip colors in slightly dimmer indoor rooms better than other selections and hybrids. Another great decorating option is to focus on variegated bromeliads with white and green foliage in your low-light areas.
Now, bromeliads slowly die after they complete their flowering, so don’t panic when several weeks (or months) after the flower stalk appears it begins to brown, then later the leaves begin to turn pale and tan. That’s all normal – and it doesn’t mark the end of your bromeliad growing! These plants may be one-time bloomers, but they’re generous: At the base of the degrading mature plant you’ll find young, replacement plants called “pups.” Carefully cut away the dying mother plant to allow the pups more light, then watch as they enlarge and fill the container. If the lighting conditions are right for the plant species, these pups will flower someday in the future, again with a prolonged display in the shade that overcomes that indoor gloom.