In the small lean-to greenhouse are bromeliads, which are attractive and unusual plants. Did you know that the tasty pineapple (Ananas comosus syn. A. sativus) is a bromeliad? It is the only one grown for its fruit. Yet the stems yield a potent proteolytic enzyme bromelin, which depolymerises fibrin matrix and so can be used for food texturing as a meat tenderizer, as well as vegetable rennet with the property of coagulating the phosphoprotein casein in milk. Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) that festoons many a tree in the southern USA is not a moss; it is a bromeliad. It contains a tough wiry core that was once used as a material for stuffing upholstery.
The family Bromeliaceae contains almost 56 genera and about 2,700 described species. The group is wholly American (mainly tropical and subtropical) except for a single species of west Tropical Africa (Pitcairnia feliciana). Terrestrial xerophytic bromeliads such as Puya are regarded as the most archaic members of the family. The xerophytic habit may be regarded as a pre-adaptation to the epiphytic habit of most species. The most commonly cultivated genera of bromeliads are Aechmea, Ananas (pineapple), Billbergia (Queen’s tears), Cryptanthus (Earthstars), Neoregelia and Tillandsia (Air plants).
Many bromeliads grow epiphytically in South American forests and grow high up on the branches of trees in order to obtain sufficient light. In such soil-less situations they collect rainwater in tanks or ‘vases’ formed by closely fitting leaf bases. These tanks are inhabited by a multitude of tiny aquatic creatures.
Along with these bromeliads are a few orchids and a couple of the most spectacular staghorn ferns or Platycerium bifuracatum, with leaves that resemble antlers.