If you're looking for a tough bromeliad that can handle freezes, frost, and flood (yes flood), one of the cold tolerant billbergia hybrids may be just the ticket for a "not so tropical garden". Billbergia pyramidalis, the most commonly grown billbergia in my area is so easy that its common name is "foolproof plant"!
There are so many hybrids that even the experts have a hard time telling them apart! The one pictured below was found in an old abandoned lot in the sand and rescued before everything was demolished for a new house. It has been left in a soggy flooded window box, subjected to lawnmowers, record cold, a totally epiphytic lifestyle and even the floods of the rainy season. When I pruned off some vases that had already flowered, I simply threw them in the swamp last spring. Just the other day I found a pretty healthy pup growing out of the muck from the old plant!
This is one of the many hybrids that shows a lot of color and variation in bright sun. Since the flowers are so short lived, I think the foliage is my favorite part. These first two photos feature a clump growing on a sweet bay magnolia against the swamp behind the garden.
Below is the flowering procession of a similar hybrid that I found in an ancient clump of thousands in Middleburg. The flowering takes only a couple of weeks, but I know I'll always have lots of pups in no time. From what I can tell this one is "birdsong". Any ideas?
Of course there are many other varieties to choose from such as this billbergia pyramidalis "striata", with variegated leaves and even more impressive flowers. The species is actually a topic for debate, but its usually categorized as a pyramidalis.
And here you can see the drastically different billbergia pyramidalis aka foolproof plant. Now do you see why they couldn't possibly be the same species?
Of course the best known billbergia to temperate gardeners is billbergia nutans, also known as queen's tears or friendship plant. It has dark green, glossy foliage that graceful and arching, often with a bit of waviness to it. The coolest part (to me at least) is it's cold hardiness, reportedly hardy in zone 8a with temps in the low teens! I would love to see these growing in a tree in temperate South Carolina.
You can see many of these at kanapaha botanical gardens in Gainesville (zone 8b) and at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.
Of course not all billbergias are cold hardy, but then again most books will tell you that all of the aforementioned bromeliads aren't cold hardy either. Your best bet is to experiment and if you find one that works for you, stick with it! I'll include posts on other cold hardy bromeliads in the future.