Geographic distribution of Bromeliaceae
Where are Bromeliaceae found?
One unique aspect of the Bromeliaceae family, which according to Benzing (1980) includes about 2,000 species, and according to Kramer (1981), close to 2,500 species, is its limited geographic distribution. In fact, all the species but one are native to the New World. These plants grow from Virginia as far south as Argentina, with the largest numbers found in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Colombia (Kramer, 1981).
The exception is Pitcarnia feliciana, found in West Africa. However, this species’ very limited range on the African continent, opposite South America, suggests that it is a fortuitous recent introduction there from the New World tropics.
If the genus Rhipsalis (Cactaceae) is native to the Old World rather than introduced there, as believed by various experts, it means that the Bromeliaceae family is the largest family with a geographic distribution limited almost exclusively to the New World (Benzing, 1980).
The scientific discovery of the Bromeliaceae
It has been said that Christopher Columbus was the first to discover Bromeliads. Although the explorers of that era focused primarily on valuable goods, they knew that any new edible plants they brought home with them would also be considered treasures. Thus it was in 1493, during his second voyage to the New World sponsored by Queen Isabella of Spain, that Christopher Columbus discovered the pineapple (Ananas comosus), which was being cultivated on the Caribbean island known today as Guadeloupe. The pineapple, it should be noted, is native to Brazil.
With its arrival in the early 16th century, the pineapple was the most exotic fruit cultivated for European royal families. The pineapple remained such a curiosity in English society that the presentation of the first pineapple to be grown in England by the Royal Gardener to King Charles II was a truly momentous event. It was immortalized in a painting, which was still on display in 1980 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In 1709 and 1730, the French explorer Feuillée brought back Bromeliad specimens from Peru and Chile; around the same time, Desmarchais, another French explorer, found some in Guyana. Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary, published in 1785, illustrates several Bromeliad species grown in English greenhouses at that time.
In 1754 Linnaeus published his book Species Plantarum, in which he listed fourteen different Bromeliad species in two genera: Bromelia and Tillandsia. At the time, the pineapple was known as Bromelia ananas. Although Linnaeus formally recognized the genus Bromelia as having been named for Olaf Bromel, a Swedish botanist made famous for the flora that he wrote for the city of Goetheborg, it was an early French explorer of the West Indies, Charles Plumier (1646-1704), who created the genus Bromelia for the plants called Karatas by the indigenous people. In fact, the common name was retained for a species native to the West Indies and Central America, Bromelia karatas. In 1805, a French botanist, Auguste Jaume de Saint-Hilaire, decided that this group of plants was varied enough to form a separate family that he named Bromeliaceae, after the genus Bromelia.
Bromalia ananas was eventually renamed Ananas comosus; comosus means tufted, and refers to the top part of the plant. The Bromeliaceae family was later divided into subfamilies.
The genus Bromelia served as the type genus for Bromelioideae, the largest of the subfamilies. The genus Pitcairnia, named for Dr. William Pitcairn, English physician and botanist, was used as the type genus for the Pitcairnioideae subfamily.
The genus Tillandsia is the type genus for the Tillandsioideae subfamily, named in honour of Dr. Tillandz, a Swedish professor who, it seems, had a terrible fear of travelling by water. The affliction was so severe that he would rather cover great distances on foot, despite all the inconveniences this entailed, than travel a few kilometres by boat. The genus Tillandsia includes several xerophyllic (drought-resistant) species such as T. usneoides, or Spanish moss. These species, which have no roots and tend to thrive in dry habitats, appear to dislike water as much as the land-loving Dr. Tillandz!
The botanical classification of Bromeliaceae
Contemporary authors, including Benzing (1980), Rauh (1979) and Smith and Downs (1974, 1977, 1979), divide Bromeliaceae into three subfamilies:
These divisions, categorized according to the structure of the reproductive organ rather than that of the vegetative organ, were adopted because the characters of the flower and the fruit are considered more evolutionary stable and less variable than the foliage, stem and root.
Contemporary botanists agree, based on the characters of the fruit, seed and flower, that the Pitcairnioideae, particularly those genera featuring a superior ovary, are the least specialized and most primitive members of the family. Nearly all Pitcairnioideae and many Bromelioideae are terrestrial.
Although the Tillandsioideae have relatively primitive fruits and floral characters, they are distinguished by epidermal trichomes whose morphology and anatomy are the most advanced of all Bromeliaceae. The top of the seeds is covered with a tuft of hairs that helps them cling to tree bark after dispersal. Most species are epiphytes, having evolved from the terrestrial habit common to most flowering plants.
Based on the structure of their reproductive organs, the Bromelioideae are the most evolved of the three subfamilies. The flower has an inferior ovary. The fruits are berries whose seeds are dispersed by animals.
The evolutionary relationships between the Pitcairnioideae, Bromelioideae and Tillandsioideae remain unclear, and contrary to what many earlier botanists believed, no extinct Pitcairnioideae genus can be considered the ancestor of the genera in the two other subfamilies (Benzing, 1980).
The following is a brief description, as presented by Benzing (1980), of each of the three subfamilies, along with their distinct characters and a list of genera for each group.
The members of this subfamily are nearly all terrestrial. Depending on the genus, the flower has a superior or an inferior ovary. The fruit is generally a capsule containing many seeds that are either naked or have appendages. The seeds are never feathery. The leaf margin is often spiny.
Abromeitiella, Ayensua, Brocchinia, Connellia, Cottendorfia, Deuterocohnia, Dyckia, Encholirium, Fosterella, Hochtia, Navia, Pitcairnia, Puya.
The members of this subfamily are, for the most part, epiphytes. The flowers typically have a superior ovary. The fruit is a capsule containing many feathery seeds. The leaf margin is never spiny.
Catopsis, Glomeropitcairnia, Guzmania, Mezobromelia, Tillandsia, Vriesea.
Many members of this subfamily are epiphytes. The flower has an inferior ovary. The fruit is a berry whose seeds have no appendages. The leaf margin is often spiny.
Acanthostachys, Aechmea, Ananas, Andreana, Androlepis, Araeococcus, Billbergia, Bromelia, Canistrum, Cryptanthus, Fascicularia, Fernsua, Gravisia, Greigia, Hohenbergia, Hohenbergiopsis, Neoglaziovia, Neoregelia, Nidularium, Ochagavia, Orthophytum, Portea, Pseudananas, Quesnelia, Ronnbergia, Streptocalyx, Wittrockia.
In his work, Rauh (1979) provides an identification key to the genera in each subfamily. The three volumes by Smith and Downs (1974, 1977, 1979), for their part, include more detailed identification keys to help identify plants down to the species.
The horticultural introduction of Bromeliads
Because of their beauty, originality and resilience, Bromeliads were introduced into cultivation soon after they were discovered. In fact, Bromeliads could survive long sea voyages, which often proved fatal for plants in other families.
The first two species imported to Europe were Ananas comosus in 1493 and Bromelia pinguin in 1690, followed by Guzmania lingulata in 1766. Aechmea fasciata, introduced in 1828, produced its first flower in September 1846 at the van Houtte nursery in Ghent, Belgium. Melinon and Leperieur introduced Vriesiae splendens from Guyana in the 1840s, at around the same time as Aechmea fulgens, which came from Brazil. Several Billbergia species were introduced to Europe near the end of the first half of the 19th century (Padilla, 1966).
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (in England) had 16 Bromeliad species in 1811, 100 in 1864 and 252 in 1887. In 1894, 334 species were being cultivated at the botanical garden of Leiden University (The Netherlands). Aside from local species, Bromeliads were virtually unknown in the United States in those days. Bromeliads were introduced to Europe at the same time as orchids and other fascinating tropical plants. Not only nursery growers, but also private collectors and naturalists were interested in this group of plants (Padilla, 1966).
Belgians were the first to popularize Bromeliads as houseplants. Many Belgian horticulturists and explorers went on government-sponsored expeditions to discover rare and unusual plants. Through his travels to South America from 1835 to 1845, Jean Linden brought back to Europe some 1,100 orchid species and 1,500 other tropical plants, including a number of Bromeliads (Padilla, 1966).
The first treatise on Bromeliads as houseplants, written by Joseph Georg Beer in 1857, was Die familie der Bromeliaceen. In 1885, Professor Édouard Morren, director of the botanical garden in Liège, published his Belgique Horticole with very high quality colour illustrations, several of which are on display today at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Édouard François André, landscape architect and a student of Morren, also studied this family and fostered public interest in these exceptional plants. His travels to Colombia and Ecuador resulted in the publication, on his return to France, of a monograph entitled Bromeliaceae Andreanae, including a detailed description of the 122 species and 14 varieties he collected in South America. Of these, 91 were new descriptions and most of them are still valid today. In 1935, a fresh boost was given with the publication of a monograph that was very up to date for its time: Bromeliaceae, by the German botanist Carl Mez (Benzing, 1980; Kramer, 1981).
The cultivation of Bromeliads was highly popular until the early 20th century, when the effects of the two World Wars, especially the second (1939–1945), somewhat dampened enthusiasm for horticulture in general. Moreover, many live plant collections and herbarium specimens were destroyed. After 1945, interest in Bromeliads was reawakened not only in Europe, but also in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.
The many works by Mulford Foster, from Orlando, Florida, contributed to the advancement of Bromeliad cultivation in North America. Several species are named after him, including Aechmea fosteriana, Cryptanthus fosteriana and Dykia fosteriana. Enthusiasts worldwide became hugely interested in these plants and formed a horticultural society dedicated to cultivation and research. And so it was that in 1950 Mulford Foster founded the Bromeliad Society, based in Los Angeles, California, which publishes a bimonthly journal with articles on the history, cultivation, systematics and phylogeny of this plant family.
Before 1950, Europeans were most often the ones who discovered and introduced new species and carried out hybridization work; but after 1950, thanks to the efforts of Mulford, Racine Foster and other Americans, enormous progress was made in North America in developing the cultivation methods and systematics of this family.
Nevertheless, it was only in the early 1970s that Bromeliads started to become well known on this side of the Atlantic. Hybridization helped produce many interesting new varieties. The shape of the plant, the colour of the flowers and foliage, and the ability to withstand difficult growing conditions are all factors that lead to one variety being preferred over another. The ever-larger number of Bromeliad growers suggests that they will become one of the most popular groups of ornamental plants (Benzing, 1980; Kramer, 1981).
Based on articles by Denis Barabé and by Suzanne Forget in Quatre-Temps magazine.