Bromeliaceae are often called the pineapple plant.
Humans have been using bromeliads for thousands of years. The Incas, Aztecs, Maya and others used them extensively for food, protection, fiber and ceremony, just as they are still used today. European interest began when Spanish conquistadors returned with pineapple, which became so popular as an exotic food that the image of the pineapple was quickly adapted into European art and sculpture. In 1776, the species Guzmania lingulata was introduced to Europe, causing a sensation among gardeners unfamiliar to such a plant. In 1828, Aechmea fasciata was brought to Europe, followed by Vriesea splendens in 1840. These transplants were successful enough that they are still among the most widely grown bromeliad varieties.
In the 1800s breeders in Belgium, France and the Netherlands started hybridizing plants for wholesale trade. Many exotic varieties were produced up until the First World War which halted breeding programs and led to the loss of some species. The plants experienced a resurgence of popularity after World War II. Since then, Dutch, Belgian and North American nurseries have largely expanded bromeliad production.
Bromeliads are a widely varied group of organisms, adapted to a number of climates. Foliage takes many different shapes, from needle thin to broad and flat, symmetrical to irregular, spiky and soft. The foliage, which usually grows in a rosette, is the most widely patterned and colored of any plant in the world. Leaf colors range from maroon, through various shades of green, to gold, with many colors in between. Many varieties have variegated leaves with red, yellow, white and cream variegations. Others may be spotted with purple, red, or cream, while others have different colors on the tops and bottoms of the leaves.
The inflorescence produced by bromeliads are also regarded as considerably more diverse than any other plant family. Some flower spikes may reach 10 meters tall while others only measure 2–3 mm across. Upright stalks may be branched or simple with spikes retaining their color from two weeks up to twelve months, depending on species. In some species the flower remains unseen, growing deep in the vase of the plants.
Root systems vary according to plant type. Terrestrial bromeliad species have complex root systems which gather water and nutrients while epiphytic bromeliads only grow hard, wiry roots to attach themselves to trees and rocks.
Some bromeliads are faintly scented while others are heavily perfumed. Blooms from the species Tillandsia cyanea resemble the smell of clove spice.
One study found 175,000 bromeliads per hectare (2.5 acres) in one forest; that many bromeliads can sequester 50,000 liters (more than 13,000 gallons) of water.
A wide variety of organisms take advantage of the pools of water trapped by bromeliads. A study of 209 plants from the Ecuadorian lowlands identified 11,219 animals, representing more than 300 distinct species, many found only on bromeliads; for instance, some species of ostracods, small salamanders approximately 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) in length, tree frogs, and even other species of bromeliads. Jamaican bromeliads are home to Metopaulias depressus, a reddish-brown crab 2 centimeters (three quarters of an inch) across, which has evolved social behavior to protect its young from predation by Diceratobasis macrogaster, a species of damselfly whose larvae live in bromeliads.