In this month’s horticulture blog, we’re focusing on a beautiful flowering bromeliad, Alcantarea imperialis, and the clever adaptations which have allowed it to survive in harsh conditions.

Native to the Serra dos Órgãos mountain range in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this striking and impressive specimen is able to grow in high altitudes of up to 1,500 metres above ground, finding its niche within cracks and crevices of rocky slopes.

The genus Alcantarea gets its name from Dom Pedro d'Alcântara, the second emperor of Brazil, and is part of the Bromeliaceae (bromeliad) family of plants that are native to the American tropics and sub-tropics, with one outlier species found in tropical west Africa.

One of the largest bromeliads, Alcantaria imperialis displays wide straps of greyish leathery leaves that form rosettes, with colours that range from flushing green to wine-red. Emerging from within these rosettes, a towering spike will thrust its head above the foliage, growing up to 400-600 tiny white flowers over a six-month period that produce an abundance of food for insects and nectar-feeding birds.

One of the largest bromeliads, the Alcantaria imperialis displays wide straps of greyish leathery leaves that form rosettes, with colours that range from flushing green to wine-red.

Auckland Zoo

Adapted to grow in difficult conditions, the rosette-forming leaves grow tightly together to create a reservoir, pooling water and nutrients to help it withstand drier months. Each leaf has its own trichomes (scales or hairs) that aren’t visible to the naked eye, yet it’s these microscopic structures that allow plants like this to absorb water and nutrients – which becomes really important when they’re rooted in areas that are nutrient-scarce.  

It can take up to eight years for this plant to reach maturity, where it can grow to an impressive 2 metres in height and up to 1.5 metres wide. Beneficial for the whole ecosystem, the large leaves and reservoirs of water they capture provide a habitat for amphibians, reptiles and aquatic insects. Unfortunately due to fires and human-driven deforestation Alcantarea imperialis have been becoming increasingly endangered in the wild, but thankfully there are nurseries in Brazil that are working to conserve this species for generations to come.

A stunning, stress-free plant for the home garden, Alcantarea imperialis will thrive if planted in free-draining soil, requiring little watering or maintenance once established. Perfect for balconies or near swimming pools, it will offer years of blooms, provided it is protected from frosts and high winds.

Summer is a great time to visit Auckland Zoo to see all our lush plant life in full bloom! Look out for these stunning specimens in our South American habitat (along the path that leads from alligators to orangutans) adjacent to our South East Asia precinct, an area which is currently undergoing some world-leading renovations as part of Auckland’s Future Zoo.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series and if you have any recommendations on plants we should cover or questions for our horticulture experts, flick us an email!