While I love the look look of poinsettias and other traditional holiday pot plants, I never know what to do with them once the holidays are over. It seems to be against my gardener’s code of conduct to toss them in the trash, and dumping them on the compost pile in midwinter seems equally harsh. Mine generally linger long enough to move outdoors with my other houseplants for summer vacation. Only then will my conscience allow me to neglect them enough that they fade away.
Houseplants that flower in winter—especially without scheduling and excess effort—are another matter altogether. A favorite that falls into this category has just come into bloom: Billbergia nutans, commonly called Queen’s tears. Not only does this tough, undemanding bromeliad bloom reliably every winter, it does it with minimal intervention on my part.
A relative of the pineapple, to my eye for most of the year Bilbergia nutans looks something like an attractive, potted ornamental grass. Handsomely arching leaves carried in tightly packed, funnel-shaped rosettes form a dense clump. The individual leaves, which have have small, widely spaced teeth, are ½-inch wide and 1 to 1½ feet long.
Rounded clusters of pink bracts deep in the center of the rosettes are the first indication a plant is going to bloom. These lengthen quickly, and each eventually reveals up to four pink bracts. The flowering stems terminate in a pendulous, 6-inch-long raceme of up to 12 small flowers. The flowers, which have reflexed petals, are yellow-green with handsome midnight blue edges. Pretty yellow stamens hang below the petals. Plants stay in bloom for about two weeks, and the pink bracts remain colorful a little longer than that.
Easy Care Houseplants
Queen’s tears is among the easiest-to-grow houseplants I own. While my plant would, no doubt, respond happily to fussing, it manages to get by on the other end of the care spectrum. Occasional watering in winter, extremely infrequent misting, and little if any fertilizer seem to suit it just fine.
Winter Care. In winter, ideal nighttime temperatures range between 55° and 65°F, but plants can withstand temperatures near freezing for short periods. Give them a spot that receives good light, but keep them out of direct sun to prevent the leaves from burning. While plants do appreciate regular misting and regular watering (some references recommend keeping the leaf rosettes full of water at all times), B. nutans doesn’t need all that attention to thrive. I simply water about every week or 10 days in winter. I don’t worry about filling up the rosettes. For one thing, they’re too small and there are too many of them to make that an easy task. That said, I suspect the flowers would last a bit longer if I misted my plant daily or even every couple of days. I do give my plant a shower occasionally to wash off the dust.
Summer Care. Like my other houseplants, B. nutans spends time outdoors from about May through October. The species thrives in our hot, humid summers, provided plants are kept out of direct sun. A spot in light or dappled shade is ideal. Shade from late morning on is especially important because the sun is hottest in the afternoon. Some summers, I’ve hung the plant in a tree, and other years it has spent the summer on a cement block-and-board installation that houses the majority of my houseplants.
I water considerably more often during hot weather—every few days when it doesn’t rain—but that’s something all of my houseplants need. I also fertilize a couple of times during the summer with a dilute fish emulsion fertilizer (only used outdoors because of the smell) or compost tea.
Potting Medium. Most Bilbergia species are epiphytes, meaning plants that grow in trees but do not take any nourishment from them. Their epiphytic nature dictates a light potting mix that is high in organic matter and drains well. I use a mix that is equivalent to the Bromeliad Society International’s (http://www.bsi.org/) recipe of one part bark mulch, one part perlite, and one part soilless potting mix. My plant is in a plastic pot, so a somewhat heavier mix helps keep it from becoming top heavy. For this reason I substitute crushed stone for the perlite. The easiest source of crushed stone I’ve found is coarse turkey grit. I keep a bag on hand for adding to potting soil mixes and for mulching pots. It is available anywhere poultry supplies are sold. Coarse sand would work here as well.
Propagation and Repotting. Another common name for this handsome bromeliad is friendship plant, no doubt because the rosettes are so easy to root and share with friends. (Send me an e-mail if you would like to get a free start of this plant. I’ll need to repot mine in the spring!) To propagate, either divide the clump by chopping it up into pieces as you would a perennial, or separate and plant individual rosettes. Summer is the best time for repotting and rooting offsetts.
Keep in mind that individual rosettes only bloom once. After the flowers fade, the rosettes direct their energy into producing new offsetts or suckers. For this reason, browning rosettes will appear in the center of established clumps. When you see them, just pull or cut them out and discard them to make room for new plants.