The Gift Plant that Keeps on Giving
Hardly anyone buys a silver vase plant (Aechmea fasciata) for themselves as as a houseplant. It’s usually offered in bloom at full florist prices and is therefore a bit pricey to be just a “houseplant I picked up the other day”. However, it makes a stupendous gift plant. After all, if you catch the plant just as it is coming onto the market, its fabulous inflorescence will last a full 6 months and maybe more: not many plants can beat that! And if you give it to a plant person, which is what I recommend, oh the fun they will have with it!
Quite The Looker
Well, first a description. The silver vase plant forms an upright vase-shaped rosette of arching silver green leaves with spiny edges. The silver coloring comes from the whitish scales called trichomes that cover the leaves. Their role is to capture humidity directly from the air. If you spray water on an aechmea, the trichomes will rapidly absorb the water and become transparent, turning the plant entirely green for a short period. The trichomes tend to appear in a banded pattern, giving the leaves a bicolor green and silver appearance, although many cultivars of A. fasciata have been chosen for a more uniformly silver appearance.
Of course, foliage is a wonderful thing, but the flower stalk that arises from the center of the rosette is its real claim to fame. It forms a dense inverted pyramid of bright pink bracts edged in fine spines: it’s the tough, leathery texture of the bracts that helps ensure the inflorescence lasts for months, as the small blue-violet buds that turn red as they open barely peek out above the bracts only last a day each, although they can be produced over several weeks.
Maintaining Your Gift Plant
The silver vase is from southeastern Brazil where it primarily grows, as most bromeliads do, way up in the trees, as an epiphyte. However, like many of the larger bromeliads, it is often knocked out of its host tree and may well continue to thrive on the ground. The latter point is important, as we usually grow it in a pot of soil, as if it were a terrestrial plant… and it’s just fine with that.
Keeping a silver vase plant going for a few months after you buy it is a snap. Just keep it moderately moist, watering the soil when it gets dry. And you can also add water to the tank (more on that later) as well if you want to. Provide normal indoor temperatures and at least moderate light and you’re off to the races. Getting one to rebloom is a different story, though. It’s not impossible (in fact, I find it easy to rebloom!), but you’ve got to give it much better conditions.
The Second Generation
The first thing to understand about reblooming an aechmea is that, as with almost all bromeliads, it only blooms once, then the mother plant dies, slowly, usually taking a full year to do so. But before she kicks the bucket, though, she’ll produce from one to four offsets (called pups). They can either be removed and potted up individually when they are about 1/3 the size of their mama or left to form a cluster (in which case, cut mama out when she croaks). To separate the pups, you’ll probably need to unpot the mother plant and cut the pups free.
Pot them up in the mix of your choice. Logically an orchid blend would be ideal, as it is designed for epiphytic plants, but the pups actually do just fine in plain old potting soil. You can also grow them mounted on bark, driftwood or osmunda. Theoretically a 6 inch (15-cm) container will suffice if you grow them in a pot (they don’t an ever-expanding mass of roots like most other plants), but the plant can become top heavy over time, so you might want to insert the pot in a heavier cache-pot when the plant becomes wobbly.
So it is actually the babies that rebloom… and that can take a while. 18 months at least, but more likely 2 to 4 years under average home conditions. And if the conditions are poor, they may never rebloom.
Getting the Pups to Rebloom
Light, light and more light, with at least some direct sun: that’s what you need to get the plant to bloom. Although many sources claim you have to avoid full sun, full indoor sun is not only fine, but probably ideal… just make sure you acclimate your plant gradually so the leaves don’t burn. That will also give a plant with broader, more silvery leaves. If your pup is producing long, narrow, mostly green leaves, you’re not giving it enough light.
I put my plants outside for the summer, acclimating them for a week or so in partial shade, but eventually getting them out into pretty intense sun. In a hot, arid climate, some shade will probably be needed, but otherwise, the more sun the better. I actually place the pots on the ground (the bright silver rosettes look smashing rising out the green foliage of my other garden plants). Slugs seem to show no interest in the thick, leathery leaves.
There are two ways of watering a silver vase. First, the typical houseplant way, following the golden rule of watering: wait until the soil is dry to the touch, then water abundantly. You’ll probably find it doesn’t need watering every week. You can also water it by pouring water into the “tank” formed by the leaves. Ideally you’d use rainwater, as tap water contains chemicals that can stain the leaves. My experience that I get little leaf staining as long as I give the plant a summer outside, when the soft water from rainfall flushes the tank out.
Please note you don’t have to water this plant by its tank. It will do perfectly fine if you only water it by its roots.
This plant is not a heavy feeder. I recommend diluting any fertilizer to about 1/8 of the recommended rate and applying it to the root ball when you water, not to the tank (to avoid staining). You could theoretically add a bit of liquid seaweed to the tank, but microbes can then develop and turn the water cloudy and, eventually, stinky. If so, drain and rinse.
With its tough leaves heavily covered in trichomes, this aechmea is surprisingly tolerant of dry air. Even so, it will enjoy being grown over a humidity tray during the winter months. Finally average indoor temperatures (anything about 60?F/15?C) are just fine as well. And don’t put the plant outside in the summer until temperatures have warmed up.
The silver vase plant is rarely bothered by insects or disease, but scale insects and mealybugs are exceptions. Make sure you carefully inspect them upon purchase, as most infestations start with plants already infected before you bought them. Repeat treatments with insecticide soap, neem, or horticultural oil may control the problem… and definitely put the infested plant in quarantine, but I’ve learned the best thing to do when confronted with mealybugs or scale is to toss the plant!
I’ve never had to do this. My plants have always bloomed on their own when they reached a reasonable size and have done so relatively quickly, blooming about two years after I pot up the pups. But then, I do put them outside for the summer and that, I firmly believe, explains why they grow so quickly and so well.
If yours has reached its adult size of about 1 1/2 feet (45 cm) high and wide and shows no sign of blooming, try placing a ripe apple at the base of the plant and covering it with a clear plastic bag for about 1-2 weeks (move the plant into partial shade temporarily, or heat will build up inside the plastic and cause damage). The toxic ethylene gas given off by the apple should convince it it’s time to bloom. In commercial productions, the entire greenhouse is treated with ethylene gas, causing all the plants to bloom at the same time.
More Where That Came From
There are many cultivars of Aechmea fasciata, some with more uniformly silver leaves, some with variegation, others with spineless leaves or bracts. However, cultivar names rarely appear on the plant’s label, so you will probably never know your plant’s true name.
Also, there are some oither 225 species of aechmea and probably an equal number of interspecific hybrids, some small, some medium-size and a few monsters that will eat up a lot of space, so take your pick. Watch out: some are insanely spiny!
Garden centers that have a houseplant section may offer a few choice varieties of aechmeas or mix a few aechmeas in with other bromeliads (guzmanias, vriesias, billbergias, etc.), but for a wide range of choice, try a mail order bromeliad specialist. There isn’t much choice in Canada (Hawaiian Botanicals has a decent choice of other bromeliads, though), but in the US you can try:
I live in Canada and my method for getting choicer cultivars is save up my money and order a huge lot of bromeliads from the US ever few years. This requires obtaining an import permit as well as a phytosanitary certificate from the supplier, but is otherwise easy. And bromeliads travel very well, so they always arrive in mint condition.
Enjoy your silver vase and your other bromeliads. May they live long and prosper!