Livin on Air

Bromeliads flourish in the humidity of a New Orleans summer.

Whispered secrets of stolen kisses, giggled secrets from pigtailed lasses, secret handshakes, secret agents, secret sauces and the best secret of all ensconced behind black wrought-iron fences – secret courtyards.

In the French Quarter, you can skip over the vomit, avoid the wandering tourists, detour from the blare and bustle by simply unlocking a gate into the cool stillness of a lush and verdant courtyard.

I was totally entranced by my first New Orleans courtyard. It was the creation of James Dombrowski. Some may remember him as a big part of the civil rights movement; I remember him as a master gardener who introduced me to one of my all-time favorite plants, the bromeliad.

His courtyard was filled with hundreds of them: some in trees, some nestled next to benches, some gently splashed by a fountain’s mist. One brick wall was filled with the plants secured on planks of wood and pieces of driftwood.

Many were in full bloom with showy, vibrant blossoms. They were infinitely diverse in size, texture and color.

I loved them.

During the times I’ve lived away from New Orleans, I’ve missed the food, the culture, the music and the people, but I’ve also missed the lazy ease of having bromeliads in my life. They thrive on New Orleans’ heat, dew and humidity, things not easily duplicated in a Midwestern home.

There are several subfamilies of bromeliads; tillandsia is one genus with more than 500 species. They are commonly called “air plants,” and they need no soil because water and nutrients are absorbed through their leaves.

The roots are used as anchors only. Pineapples are a kind of bromeliad, and in late spring, look for the tiny blossoms of the graceful Spanish moss, another bromeliad.

Bromeliads’ roots are adapted to clinging onto trees, but they are not parasites. The plant relies on rainfall and leaf litter to fill up a central cup with both water and organic material for food.

Although some bromeliads can take direct sunlight, most cannot survive the harsh midday sun. Michael Seal, owner of The Funny Farm, which specializes in bromeliads and is located in Poplarville, Miss., suggests placing them so they get some morning or late afternoon sun or sunlight that comes through dappled shade.

“It’s not the heat that gets them but the damage done by ultraviolet rays,” he says. “They simply get sunburned.”

He also emphatically states that you should never leave bromeliads in standing water.

“If they are in dirt of any kind and surrounded by water, it will clog the pores of the roots, and eventually the plant will rot,” he says. “No standing water ever!”

If you do pot them, he suggests using a fast-draining potting soil – a mixture of two-thirds peat-based soil mix and one-third sand is a good ratio. He also says these plants need very little fertilizer.

If you’ve bought bromeliads with their brilliant bracts in full bloom from Walmart or Lowe’s only to see them wither and die, do not bemoan your lack of a green thumb: After the flower dies, the plant begins to die, too. But before you throw out the plant, look for several smaller pups at the base of the plant. These pups can be carefully cut off with sterile snippers and potted up individually.

However, Seal thinks that leaving bromeliads in clumps, growing closely together, is the best way to display these stunning plants.

“I rarely divide them,” he says. “They are spectacular when they bloom, and they will protect one another when we get an unexpected freeze.”

Here’s hoping you get to enjoy the full splendor of a New Orleans courtyard this summer. Enjoy the bromeliads, the ferns and the palms that grace these niches of coolness and calm. Settle back into the courtyard, sip a glass of iced tea or a flute of champagne, and share your secrets as the summer slips by graciously into fall.

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