Billbergia

(bill bur’gee uh)

The genus Billbergia belongs to the subfamily Bromelioideae, and is subdivided into two subgenera, Billbergia and Helicodea. Most of the cultivated species belong to the subgenera Billbergia. The genus Billbergia was named for Gustavo Billbergia, a Swedish botanist. Billbergia pyramidal was was first introduced into cultivation in 1815, but it took over 80 more years before the first hybrid , ‘Herbaultii,’ a cross between B. amoena and B. leopoldii (now named B. brasiliensis), was made in France in 1897. About the time the first hybrid was made, Billbergia nutans was introduced into southern California. Bromeliads in general were not very popular in the United States until the early 1940s when Mulford Foster started collecting and hybridizing the family. His Billbergia hybrids include Gerda, Henry Teuscher, Horena, Muriel Waterman, and Olive Baldwin.

Billbergias grow mostly in Brazil, but some species are found in Mexico, Central America, along the Atlantic coast, through Uruguay, and as far south as Argentina, and along the Pacific coast through Ecuador and Peru. Almost all members of the genius are epiphytic growing in trees and shrubs from sea level to 5000 feet. If they fall from their perch, they will happily take root and grow on the ground. The typical plant is tall and tube like with 5-8 leaves. The foliage can be mottled, banded, variegated, or just plain green. Billbergia flowers, although short lived, are usually spectacular. They are frequently cascading, but can be upright having a variety of colors such as purple, blue, yellow, green or white. The flowers are the best way to tell the subgenera apart. The subgenera Helicodea have flower petals that coil up like a spring, while the flowers of the subgenera Billbergia recurve when open, but do not coil on themselves. Size is variable ranging from 8 inches tall for nutans to 36 inches tall for amoena.

Light:
They like moderate to full sunlight ( 50%-70% shade which is about 3000 to 5000 foot candles). In general, the better the air circulation and the higher the humidity the more light they can tolerate. In Florida, some species are grown outside in full sunlight.
Temperature:
They prefer temperatures in the range of 45-65 degrees Fahrenheit at night with the temperature rising to 70-95 degrees in the daytime. The nighttime temperature should be 10-15 degrees lower than the daytime temperature for best growth and color. Although the species in the subgenera Helicodea are less tolerant of low temperatures, most others can tolerate temperatures as low as 26 degrees Fahrenheit for short periods of time. Extremely low temperatures will cause some damage, but the plant will usually survive. High temperatures, up to 120 degrees, will cause the plants to bleach out, but the plants will regain their color when the temperatures moderate.
Fertilizer:
A small amount of slow release fertilizer added to the potting mix when potting pups will get them off to a good start. Although most people do not fertilize them at all, well established plants growing in bright light with good air circulation can be fertilized monthly with dilute (¼ strength) general purpose fertilizer during warm weather. Over fertilization can lead to oversized, lanky, green plants that are more susceptible to insect and disease damage.
Water:
Water the mix when it is dry to the touch. Ideally the water should be slightly acidic and free of minerals, but most any water that has not been passed through a home water softener will be adequate. Keep fresh water in the cup at all times. Most of Houston has hard water, and it can leave salt deposits in the plant’s cup and on the leaf edges when it evaporates. The deposits are unsightly and can possibly burn the plant. Stagnant water in the cup is also an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes. Empty the cup or flush it out with large quantities of water on a weekly basis to avoid disease and insect problems.
Medium:
Many plants will grow mounted on cork or wood. Those that are potted like a well drained medium such as a mixture of ½ small bark chips and ½ peat based soil less mix. A mix of vermiculite, perlite, and Canadian peat in equal parts also works well. In any event the mix should be light, well drained, and slightly acidic.
Containers:
Most plants are happy in 4 inch pots; however the larger varieties are best potted in 5 inch pots. Plants that are allowed to clump can be potted in 6 inch hanging baskets or 6 inch pots. Azalea pots are a good choice because they are less prone to tip over in the wind. Most of the plants can be grown mounted on wood or cork bark. If you are mounting a plant, start with a pup not a mature plant. Billbergias form two different root systems. Plants potted in a mix will form a root system that is adapted to taking up water and nutrients from the soil. Plants mounted on wood or bark will put out a set of tough strong roots adapted to holding the plant secure, but they will not be able to absorb water and nutrients.
Propagation:
After blooming the mature plant goes into a slow decline, but small plants called pups will develop at the base of plant. When a pup is about 1/3 to ½ the size of the mature plant it can be removed and mounted, or it can be potted in its own pot. Pups root quickly in the spring, and will usually bloom in 1-3 years. If the pups are not removed, you can remove the original plant when it dies, and allow the pups to grow as a clump. For those who like adventure, they can be grown from seed, but this is a slow process that can take many years.
Problems:
Properly spaced plants growing in a well ventilated area are seldom bothered by disease or insects. Occasionally plants will be attacked by a fungus, but recovery is rapid when treated early with a fungicide. Insect problems are usually minimal, but if the plants are crowded, and there is little air circulation scale infestation can develop. The two most common types of scale are the brown soft bodied scale and the black tea scale. A treatment or two of insectidal soap will usually bring the brown scale under control. However tea scale is much harder to kill. If a plant is infected with black tea scale, it can be destroyed, or you can consult your local garden center for an appropriate insecticide.

Almost any Billbergia will grow in the Houston area. Some of the more popular species are:

  • distachia
  • nutans
  • pyramidalis (several forms including , striata, and ‘Kyoto’)
  • saundersii

Popular hybrids include:

  • Caramba
  • Catherine Wilson
  • De Nada, Ellen
  • Fantasia
  • Fascinator
  • Hallelujah
  • Luna Blanca
  • Muriel Waterman
  • Pink Champagne
  • Poquito Mas
  • Sangrea
  • Tequila Sunset

Aechmea| Billbergia| Cryptanthus| Dyckia| Hechtia | Neoregelia| Tillandsia