Billbergia pyramidalis : A flaming torch in Philippine garden

Billbergia pyramidalis

Billbergia pyramidalis  (1827) is a species in the genus Billbergia it is just one of the 40 genera of bromeliads. It is comprised of about sixty species that are primarily native to Brazil. While Billbergia are most commonly found in Brazil, their range extends from central Mexico to northern Argentina. Its unique adaptations make it especially appropriate for outdoor landscape plants in moderate climates.

The species was named Billbergia pyramidalis because the inflorescence ( bracts ) are pyramidal in shape.

Range: It is native to Brazil , Venezuela , French Guiana , Lesser Antilles, Cuba, Leeward Island,  and naturalized in some Carribean islands like Puerto Rico , Dominican Republic , Florida , and in the islands of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

The flowers on an individual plant last less than one month, but nearly all the plants will come into bloom at the same time in the late summer. They are equally distributed as a terrestrial or epiphytic.

Origin of the Name:

The name was derived from  Swedish botanist , zoologist, anatomist  Gustaf Johan Billberg (14 June 1772, Karlshrona 26 November 1844,Stockholm )

Common Names:

Backyard gardeners usually know them as flaming torch , red torch ,summer torch , red flame, queen tears, foolproof plant, billbergia , bubble gum blossom , candy blossom , hurricane bromeliad , among others……..

commonly called flaming torch or summer torch- flowers are the bright violet

Introduction: The species is not native or indigenous to the Philippines , They were  introduced to the Philippines from the United States probably just after the second world war ( mid- 1940’s) .

Because of  the unique reddish orange bracts it make them very attractive for backyard gardens and landscaping materials.Hence it makes them ideal as ornamental house plants.

Billbergia pyramidalis planted as hedge plant

photo credit: Architect Chieo Ongteco

The plant was featured in the book,  Philippine Ornamental Plants by Dr. Mona Lisa Steiner published in  1952, Second Edition in 1960 and again in 1986. It seems that the plant had been in cultivation for at least 70 years or so in the country.

I bought some Billlergia pyramidalis way back in the early 1990’s from Green and Grow Plant center which was located within Manila Seedling Bank Foundation in Quezon City. The store was having its annual sale and the sales person told me that they have a lot these in their farm ( Laguna province) and  landscapers who usually get a lot from them at wholesale price. They also had some clients from big posh subdivision . We were able to haggle the price from Php20.00 per pup to just Php 10.00 since we bought around 10 pups = Php 100.  The store probably closed down in the late 1990’s .

I later notice, that this is quite popular ornamental plant in our place since some neighbors had been growing them in containers  normally with chopped coconut husk , some loose soil and charcoals . I think this is due to the bright colored reddish orange inflorescence  and relatively easy to grow under Philippine conditions.  Within just few years, We manage to grow over 50 pots of these wonderful species and usually to give them to visiting relatives and friends.  Eventually , I was only left with few pots .

Unfortunately in the early 2000 , While jogging around , i usually seen several pups thrown in vacant lots and left to die, probably the owners got tired of growing them and simply have thrown them away.

This is not happening in our place but i have seen them even in posh subdivision elsewhere also thrown away in vacant lots. I sometime manage to ask for a few pups and i would give some friends which would like to adapt them.  I began to noticed that fewer neighbors are cultivating them.

emerging bracts

Another reason for the decline of backyard growers is according to television news , newspapers  and even some studies that the main crown which can hold water tends to be the breeding place of mosquitoes which are carriers of dengue strains. Scaring even a lot of housewives and backyard hobbyists.

Some eventually gave up the hobby ,  There are countless of growers who eventually stopped growing them . There are also some backyard garden centers which eventually stop selling them, according to them – There is not much demand.

We also call these plants as dual citizens, they can be planted in soil and does well as epiphtyes .

Epiphytes:

Billergia are primarily epiphytic species. They can grow comfortably attached to trees and shrubs . I usually put a small amount of coconut husk around the roots of Billbergia pyramidalis and mount them on dead kakawate trunks or tie them in living palms like Bunga China or trees. This blooming season usually coincide with finishing their growth around June to late September which is also the rainy season in most parts of the country.

Water and Fertilization

Billbergia do not require much water, but they do like high humidity. The potting medium should feel dry when touched between each watering. You can also add water to the central tank. Use distilled water or rain water to avoid mineral buildup on the leaves. The tanks should also be regularly flushed and rinsed to avoid stagnate water. Stagnate water can result in pests and diseases.

I normally put water soluble  20N-20P-20K in their tanks after watering them heavily , once or twice a month – water soluble fertilizers can be bought in any home and garden outlets .  Dilute them to 1/4 or 1/2 the strength recommended dosage.

Propagation

I normally divide my Billbergia after it blooms or when pups are several months with small adventitious roots ,  keep them on partial shade area and moving them gradually to  partial sunlight. Since there are no natural pollinators which occur in the Philippines, It seldom sets seeds . Propagation is usually separating the suckers/ pups when they have small roots and are large enough to be individually potted.

Economic Uses

Billbergas are highly ornamental plants ,During its blooming season, potted plants with flowers can be a centerpiece in living room or focal point in one’s garden. The inflorescence or bracts carry several violet flowers which can last between 5 to 7 days in prefect condition .

Sometimes, there are available plants for sale at the Centris Sunday market , garden centers .

Friendly neighbors and friends can give their excess propagation or pups.

Note: I still have a couple of plants tuck away in a corner of our house. All photos are taken by the author .

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