Many Bromeliads don’t grow in soil, both in the wild and inside people’s homes. Indoor gardeners commonly raise these epiphytic plants on chunks of wood or rock, taking advantage of their ability to absorb water through their foliage. But what if you want to raise your plant in a jar of pure water like so many people do with Pothos or Peperomias? Can your Bromeliad live in water alone?
In theory, it’s possible for some Bromeliads to grow water roots, allowing you to raise them hydroponically. In practice, it’s hard to do this without causing crown rot. Instead of trying to make your Bromeliad live in water, you may be better off growing it in a sem-hydroponic medium like LECA.
One of the biggest challenges in raising Bromeliads is avoiding anaerobic conditions, which suffocate the roots and cause fungal infections. This is much harder when the plant is sitting in water. That’s why most growing advice focuses on maximizing drainage and aeration. If you’re really determined, you might be able to raise your Bromeliad in water — but as we’ll explain below, it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth.
Why Bromeliads Are Hard to Grow in Water
It can sound surprising to people who’ve never tried it, but many houseplants can indeed live in nothing but water. This is possible because many land plants can grow specialized “water roots” that extract oxygen from the water, much like a fish’s gills. Meanwhile, the bacteria and fungi that cause root rot in wet soil have a hard time living underwater.
Bromeliads are technically capable of this type of adaptation, too. However, their structure makes it hard for them to live for long in a totally aquatic environment.
When you’re growing a plant in a jar, you generally want to keep its foliage above the surface while the roots and bare stem dangle in the water. Leaves that are dunked in water can’t adapt the way roots can. They tend to suffocate and rot.
A typical Bromeliad has very little stem to speak of. The plant usually has only a shallow root system just below a spreading “crown” of leaves. If you look at your Bromeliad, you can see this for yourself — the cup-shaped rosette of foliage starts just above the surface of the soil.
This combination of a compact root system, a short stem, and low, spreading foliage makes it tricky for a Bromeliad to live in water alone. Unless you have some way to anchor and immobilize it, the base of the crown will dip into the water.
This generally leads to rot in short order. And because the plant has just a single cluster of foliage, it doesn’t take long for the infection to spread enough to completely kill your Bromeliad.
Some Types of Bromeliads Can’t Grow in Water at All
Lots of Bromeliads are epiphytes or lithophytes that normally live attached to trees or rocks. Some of these species use their roots only for anchoring, absorbing water and nutrients entirely through their leaves. Air Plants (Tillandsias) are well-known examples.
These species of Bromeliads may not be able to grow water roots at all. The only difference between putting their stems in water and plopping them down on a plate is that the former can cause their leaves to rot.
So check what kind of Bromeliad you have before trying to grow it in water. Species that don’t produce absorbent roots should probably stay on dry land.
Helping a Bromeliad Live in Water
If you’re determined to keep your Bromeliad in water alone, your best bet is to keep the water level below the crown. One option would be to use a vessel with a neck that’s too narrow for the leaves to fit through, letting the roots trail down into the water. However, this setup will get top-heavy, so you’ll probably need to place some supports around the sides of the plant to keep it from tipping over.
You could also try to rig up some kind of rigid frame to suspend your Bromeliad over a wider container of water. Drilling wooden dowels into a triangle might work. Or you could take a sturdy plastic dish and cut a hole in the base for the stem to poke through. Then, you can attach your Bromeliad to this structure by wrapping twine or wire around the stem.
Whatever you do, don’t use copper wire. This metal is toxic to Bromeliads.
You’ll need to change the water every week or so to keep it from getting anoxic and stagnant. Whatever method you use to keep the leaves above the water, make sure you can still move your Bromeliad when necessary.
Distilled water is best for your plant, though tap water should be fine if it hasn’t been treated with softeners. You’ll need to add a small dose of liquid fertilizer about once per month during the growing season. If your Bromeliad has a central “cup” in its leaves, you should also keep that full at all times. Rinse it out every time you change the water in the jar so that it doesn’t lead to rot.
The Better Option: Semi-Hydroponic Growth
Rather than attempting the difficult and usually thankless task of trying to grow a Bromeliad in water, we’d recommend semi-hydroponic care (semi-hydro for short). Instead of filling your plant’s jar with water alone, include a sterile, moisture-wicking substrate.
This medium provides a buffer between the water and the plant. The substrate will absorb enough water to keep your Bromeliad’s roots hydrated without getting the crown wet. But it provides most of the same advantages as growing a plant in pure water. For example:
- The humidity is higher
- You can see the root system
- The uniform growing medium is unfriendly to fungi, bacteria, and insect pests
- Your plant can grow in an attractive glass jar
The most popular semi-hydro substrates are:
- LECA, a growing medium consisting of blobs of baked clay. Because they’re so large, they leave lots of room for airflow and root growth.
- Perlite, a type of volcanic glass, can also work well. Some find it less attractive than LECA’s earth tones, though. Be careful when handling it, because it can produce puffs of dust that are rough on your lungs.
- Crushed pumice, a porous rock that’s comparable to clay and perlite in terms of moisture absorption and aeration. It’s not quite as good as LECA in terms of holding nutrients, though. On the plus side, it has a natural appearance that appeals to many growers.
- Pon, a blend of different absorbent rocks, including zeolite, lava rock, and pumice. It looks nice, and many growers swear it works better than any other semi-hydro substrate. On the other hand, it’s also the most expensive option. Name-brand pon often includes fertilizer.
Moving Your Bromeliad to Semi-Hydro
Moving a Bromeliad to a semi-hydroponic setup is fairly straightforward. First, choose a container with a solid bottom. Most people like to use glass because it means the root system is visible (and it looks nice). The vessel should be tall enough that you can place a few inches of water in the bottom while leaving a few inches between the surface of the water and the base of your Bromeliad.
Substrates like LECA and perlite must be rinsed to remove dust and then soaked in water for a few hours. Once that’s done, you can add some water to the base of your jar and then fill it with your growing medium. Leave a little room at the top for your Bromeliad’s stem and roots.
Once the new container is full, take your Bromeliad out of its existing container. (Or, if you’re starting a new pup, slice it off the parent plant.) Wash any soil off the roots and then nestle them into the growing medium. If necessary, add a bit more substrate to cover them up.
Some larger Bromeliads may need a little help to stay upright, especially at first. Try sinking some thin stakes into the substrate, arranging them around the plant to prop it up.
Semi-Hydroponic Care for Bromeliads
From here on out, you can care for your Bromeliad much as you would if it was potted in soil. There are three major differences:
- Add water only when the reservoir at the base of the vessel runs low. Make sure it stays about ⅓ full and always well below the plant’s crown. If you have a Bromeliad with a “tank” in the center of its leaves, you should also keep this full, but flush it at least once a week so it doesn’t get gross.
- Some potting mixes include nutrients, but semi-hydro substrates (with the exception of some types of pon) do not. You’ll have to add a very light dose of hydroponic fertilizer to the water reservoir every so often. Every two to four weeks in the growing season is usually fine. Or you can add this to the Bromeliad’s tank if it has one.
- Monitoring and controlling the pH of the water is also usually a good idea. This is fairly simple with a pH kit. Try to keep it between 5.5 and 6.5.
Most Bromeliads adore semi-hydroponic setups. As long as you follow the instructions above and you’re careful not to let the crown sit in standing water, your plant will likely love it.
We don’t generally recommend trying to make your Bromeliad live in water, but it may be possible with enough care and patience. A substrate like LECA or pumice is usually a much better fit. With either method, the most important concern is keeping the base of your plant’s crown from getting soggy. Letting that happen is the fastest way to kill a Bromeliad.