When Christopher Columbus made his second voyage to the New World in 1493, he discovered the pineapple growing in the West Indies. Even then it was a cultivated crop in the islands and in South America. After Columbus introduced the pineapple to the court of Spain the demand for the delicious fruit became widespread. Before the end of the 16th Century pineapples were growing in practically every tropical area of the globe.
The pineapple family is exclusively tropical American. As exploration progressed, thousands of plants of similar growth were discovered, and botanists grouped and regrouped them under the name Bromeliaceae, or bromeliads, a name derived from that of a Swedish botanist.
To Brazilian Indians the pineapple was known as Ananas, a name which it retains today.
Through the years exotic ornamental bromeliads became collectors items in botanic gardens and in the hothouses of the well-to-do.
Today increasing numbers of indoor gardeners are attracted to this surprising family of plants that have curious habits of growth, a rainbow of colors in flowers and foliage and an unusual adaptability to indoor culture as container plants.
In the wild, bromeliads grow terrestrially (in the ground) or epiphytically (as air plants fastened to trees or rocks). Although some are treeperching, not one is a parasite. Most of those now in cultivation were originally epiphytes, getting the better part of their nourishment from what fell into the leaves or could be absorbed through the scales of the leaves. The roots served mainly as anchors.
The majority of bromeliads form an almost stemless rosette - sometimes flat, sometimes erect - of leathery, straplike leaves with a center that is a tubular hollow, called the "vase," where water collects. The leaves funnel and hold tremendous quantities of water; insects and small animals trapped there provide a continuous source of decaying organic matter to nourish the plant. The flower stalk grows up through this "vase."
For the most part, bromeliads are naturally adaptable to reasonable conditions as cultivated plants. Success in growing them involves a proper balance of light, humidity, temperature, feeding, watering, ventilation and pest control. Victoria Padilla, an eminent authority on bromeliads, in her book, "Bromeliads" (Crown Publishers, Inc., 1973, $12.50) explains the needs of hundreds of bromeliads from widely differing natural environments.
Light for most species should be as strong as possible, short of direct sunlight. Proper humidity is achieved through daily misting or cold-mist humidifiers. Roots of plants should never be watered excessively, but the rosetes should always be filled with water. Feed bromeliads regularly - not more often than every two or three weeks - with a liquid plant food diluted to half the normal recommended strength. Apply the food directly to the cups of rosettes.
Good ventilation is important. Day temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees in daytime and 55 to 65 degrees at night are best.
Bromelaids are attacked by very few insects. Scales and mealybugs can be controlled by scrubbing them away with a toothbrush and soapy water. If necessary, malathion spray can be used.
Most bromeliads bloom only once in their lifetime. The old plant dies one or two years after flowering. However, the plant will have produced one or more offshoots. These can remain on the mother plant for a spectacular display or they can be posted separately when they are one-third the size of the mother plant. Use a loose, porous mix.
Michael Balick, an economic botanist at the Botanical Museum of Harvard University, recently suggested some of the better-known species for a beginner. Among his selections were:
Achmea fasciata - Urn Plants.Sculptured form, gray-green foliage; inflorescene of pink bracts and violet-blue flowers lasts for many months.
Cryptanthus zonatus - Earth Star. A terrestrial genus, its rosette radiates on the ground; zigsag crossbands of silver, yellow and pink on foliage; small size makes it a good indoor container plant.
Ananas comosus or A. comosus var. variegatus - Pineapple.
Tillandsia ionantha - related to Spanish Moss and the "telephone wire plants" of Florida. It is grown attached to a piece of tree fern or wood and is maintained by frequent misting or syringing with water. Purple flowers are large in relation to the 2-inch length of leaves.
Vriesia spendens - Flaming Sword. Spectacular bloom spike reaches 2 feet above the center rosette.
Padilla and the late George Milstein, another Bromeliad specialist, assert without reservation that for leaf pattern, color, long-lasting flowers, and berries, bromeliads are unsurpassed by any other group of plants.
If you would like to venture into new fields, you are invited to attend a meeting Saturday of the Potomac Valley Chapter of the Indoor Light Gardening Society. Dr. Clyde F. Reed, botanist and grower, will discuss bromeliad culture and display some of his 3,000 plants. The chapter meets 7:30 p.m. at the National Arboretum, 24th and R Streets NE.The meeting is open to all free of charge.
Indoor gardening questions may be addressed to Jane Steffey at The Weekly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW. Washington, D.C., 20071. Please include your address and telephone number.