Jewelled Tears

Pot of bilbergia nutans - queens tears on the verandah at Elizabeth Farm

Pot of queen's tears on the verandah at Elizabeth Farm Photograph Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

Currently flowering on the verandahs at Elizabeth Farm are exotics from South America – Billbergia nutans, a type of bromeliad. They remind us that colonial gardens contained botanical riches from all around the world. 

The pendulous florets which swing in the lightest breeze hang from a pink bract, and are in wonderful shades of pink, green edged in purple, and with buttery yellow stamens. They have a beautiful, pendant-like effect, like a piece of rich jewellery. The common name ‘queen's tears’ apparently comes from the drops of nectar that appear on the flowers when bumped. 

The bilbergias are a particularly showy type of bromeliad. Billbergia pyramidalis is another species that puts on quite a display in our gardens. Commonly named ‘flaming torch’ for the blazing orange/pink central flower spike, it grows in bright shade in the gardens at Vaucluse House and Elizabeth Farm. 

Billbergia nutans flower at Elizabeth Farm
The pendulous florets in wonderful shades of pink, green edged in purple, and with buttery yellow stamens. Photograph Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums
The fantastic florets of the Billbergia Nutans at Elizabeth Farm
Here you can see the bright pink bracts which help to protect the flowers before they open. Photograph Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

As with all bromeliads, Billbergia nutans produces one flower, after which the individual plant dies. Before then, however, they will throw numerous offsets which grow into new plants. Indeed, so many of these will be produced, and they are so easily divided and distributed, that it earnt them another name – the Friendship Plant.  B. pyramidalis is also easily divided. Wait till the offsets have grown before cutting out the older parent plant. 

B. nutans is easily grown in light shade. While they can be grown in the ground, putting them in a pot or hanging basket means you can easily enjoy their exuberant display. It will also make it easier to divide them when they inevitably become crowded. A tip is to give them a mist in dry weather, as the leaf tips can scorch. Keeping them moist will also encourage lush, green growth.  They appreciate having their central ‘vases’ kept full of water, but don’t drown their roots. Don’t overdo the feeding, in a pot just a dilute orchid mix in the water sprayer is enough to keep them healthy, while in the garden they may not need feeding at all.

Potted Jewelled tears at Elizabeth Farm
Close-up of the flowers which allows you to see the vibrant colours and buttery pollen. Photograph Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

About the author

Dr Scott Hill

Curator

As a teenager, Scott Hill was captivated by pictures of ruins, trying to imagine how people had lived in these dramatic and crumbling spaces.