A hospital stay years ago leads Clear Lake-area engineer to amass huge collection of bromeliads
Phil Speer hands me a cutting from one of his bromeliad plants surrounding a tree in his Clear Lake-area front yard.
“Just try and kill this,” he said. “It won’t happen.”
The plant is from the Neoregelia species and will do just fine growing in thin air, as long as it gets the proper amount of light and water.
A retired engineer, Speer got interested in growing bromeliads in 1983 when his secretary presented him with one while he was in the hospital. He still has that plant and it lives happily in his backyard greenhouse for the winter. Aside from the hundreds of bromeliads occupying the greenhouse, thousands more are planted in the ground, hanging from trees, stacked atop plant racks or perched along the fence.
Although his collection consists mainly of the Cryptanthus, Dyckia and Billbergia varieties, many of them are hybrids.
Speer knows his botany well and likes to talk about the bromeliads and their pups — the offshoots.
The 8-by-20-foot greenhouse interior has a narrow walking path, but we squeeze in as an air circulator runs full blast to keep the plants from getting scale disease.
“The Cryptanthus’ leaves come in varied colors and shapes; the Orthophytum leaves are spiny; the Vrieseas have smooth leaves with bright inflorescences; and the Guzmania is the kind you see in the grocery stores,” he said.
A Tillandsia cyanea with a bright purple flower smells like cinnamon; an Aechmea has tall blooms with various colors and shapes, some resembling matchsticks; and a Shirley Temple hybrid boasts striking pink leaves.
The Fiesta hybrid with a tiny whitish-pink flower is barely visible inside a red spiked inflorescence that alerts butterflies.
Exiting the greenhouse, it’s hard to miss the side yard containing hundreds of Dyckia pups growing in small pots. They can tolerate the cold weather, are easy to grow and have tall, spiked orange or yellow bell-shaped blooms.
Speer is in high demand as a speaker at various bromeliad societies and garden clubs, where he demonstrates the art of planting, although his techniques are really quite simple.
“You just wiggle off the pup, punch a hole in the plant mixture — mulch, perlite, sand and peat — and sprinkle on Osmocote 14-14-14 fertilizer,” Speer said.
Aside from having a green thumb, Speer also is an artist, having made up to 30 stained-glass pieces of art, mostly featuring bromeliads, and about 75 wood intarsias, one of which garnered him the Best in Art award at the 2004 Bromeliad Society International World Conference. He won Best in Art in stained glass in 2010.
Speer’s wife, Carole, also works with stained glass, but prefers to watch her husband do his art.
“She’s my best critic,” he said.
Come March, Speer will empty his greenhouse varieties and let his prized plants get some fresh air until next November, when he will tuck them back in their winter hideaway, all snugly nestled within their protective environment.
“You can get addicted to this hobby if you’re not careful,” Speer said. “When I come out to the greenhouse, I can totally turn off my engineering brain. It’s very quiet and peaceful — like a whole other world.”