What is a bromeliad?

The bromeliads owe their common name to their membership in the plant family Bromeliaceae. Like the names of so many of the other botanical families, this one commemorates a person, and does so in Latin, the traditional language of science. The individual honored in this instance is Olaus Bromelius, a late fifteenth- to early sixteenth-century Swedish physician, who, like the other members of his profession at the time, studied botany as part of his formal training. Doctor Bromelius, as it turned out, developed a more enduring fondness for plants than medicine. Or so it seems given his botanical enshrinement.

With about 3400 species named so far, Bromeliaceae ranks by size somewhere in the middle of the 400 families recognized by taxonomists to accommodate the approximately 350,000 different kinds or species of flowering plants. More noteworthy than this statistic, however, is the family’s nearly exclusive tropical American distribution. Just one of its member species occurs beyond the New World, and the home of this solitary exception amounts to a modest-sized wedge of real estate on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Its location on Africa’s west coast suggests recent colonization from much more bromeliad-rich eastern Brazil, or perhaps from one of the Caribbean islands.

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