Paula Benway points out one of her prized new bromeliads, Neoregelia 'Hannibal Lecter,' a robust plant sporting a burgundy, dot matrix pattern on olive green leaves. It sits by itself in a pot on a bench.
"Hannibal Lecter?" I ask, cautiously leaning in for a closer look. "Does it chew your face off?"
"No," Paula says, pausing a beat. "But it'll eat your arms!"
Bromeliad lovers — they can be a little twisted. Which explains their fascination with a family of mostly rainforest plants that includes the benign Spanish moss dangling from power lines, the pineapples in our supermarkets and the giant shrubs that produce neon-colored foliage and blooms, some of which last for months.
Many bromeliads thrive in Central Florida, some with near-zero care, which is a great reason all you shady-yard folks yearning for color should mark your calendars for Aug. 4-6. That's when the Bromeliad Extravaganza comes to Tampa, courtesy of the Bromeliad Guild of Tampa Bay and Florida's coalition of bromeliad clubs.
Buy plants from knowledgeable sellers at a free plant sale from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 5, and learn about growing them by attending the conference. The $100 registration fee includes Friday and Saturday night buffets and a garden tour that features — yes! — Paula's spectacular riverside bromeliad beds.
Some broms love sun but most do best in shade or bright light (morning sun only or sun filtered through a thin tree canopy). Some are shy and sweet, stepping into the spotlight only when they flower, which may take months or years. Others, like 'Hannibal Lecter,' named for the fictional serial killer in the movie Silence of the Lambs, dazzle with year-round Crayon-colored foliage but have razor-sharp leaves that can draw blood.
"This one I'm sorry I ever planted," Paula says pointing to a menacing clutch of 4-foot-tall, spike-edged green plants. "Someone gave me the first one and it just multiplied. It's murder! And when it blooms? Pffff."
Paula's the treasurer for the Bromeliad Guild and is joined today by Tom Wolfe, vice president, because she can't remember all those Latin plant names. He's a 50-year member, past president of the International Bromeliad Society for six years and longtime commercial grower.
"What's that one called?" I ask him, pointing to Paula's Big Regret. "So I can tell people not to buy it."
"That's a non compos poopus kind of plant," he deadpans.
Faux Latin for loser.
See what I mean about brom people?
Paula and her late husband, Bob, built their Temple Terrace home in 1976. He was the first chief of anesthesia at the James Haley VA Medical Center; she was the first associate director of nursing. Both served in the Army, becoming full-bird colonels. They didn't have time for gardening.
"The yard looked awful," Paula says.
But they did have a bromeliad. Years ago, one of Bob's co-workers gave them a plant with a big, spindly flower — "the most beautiful thing," Paula says. "For a long time, we had that one and it kept multiplying."
Not till they retired about 12 years ago did they visit a plant sale at the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens and stop at the bromeliad table. That sparked a brom frenzy. They scooped up raffle prizes — plants — at club meetings and hauled home freebie castoffs.
Today, their garden is worthy of — a Bromeliad Extravaganza! Visitors will see shades of color rarely, if ever, imitated by man: glowing fuschias, hot blues and Paula's favorite, shimmering reds; yard art that reflects her humor, creativity and intellect; and lots of memories of Bob, who feels much beloved and palpably present here.
That huge potting bench? Bob built it so Paula would have a nice place to play that's not smack dab in the middle of their garden path.
"What's that?" Tom asks Paula, pointing to a contraption tucked in the trees and dripping bromeliads.
She sighs. "We're on the river, so we have mosquitoes. Bob spent $2,000 on a mosquito magnet that was the latest, greatest thing. It didn't kill a one. I needed a plant holder."
What visitors won't see are all the sculptural rocks and boulders she bought over the years.
"I love rocks," she says. "We could've paid for the house with what we spent on the rocks I've covered with bromeliads."
Contact Penny Carnathan at [email protected]; visit her blog, digginfloridadirt.com; join in the chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt; and follow @DigginPenny.