What Are Epiphytes? All About Epiphytic Plants and Their Care

Have you heard of Epiphytes? This term encompasses a wide variety of plants that grow on the outside of trees or other plants. There are many different Epiphyte varieties and many of them can make excellent plants to keep around your home. In this article, we examine the Epiphyte plant, what they are, and why they can be beneficial to have around.

Not many of us will get the chance to venture through the rainforest and explore dense jungles in our lives. But that doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy some of the wondrous vegetation that it produces.

Epiphytes are just one of many different types of plants native to these thick, plant-infested areas. And the most fantastic thing about them is that they do not grow in the dirt, but rather, in the sky.

Epiphytes are also known as airplants, and are becoming increaingly common around homes and gardens across the world. They are easy to care for, and will survive with minimal time investment. Should you have them around your home? Read on to find out!

What is an Epiphyte?

Three Air Plants Hanging Outdoors
Many people know epiphytes as air plants.

An epiphyte is a plant that does not place roots in the ground to grow but on the surface of other plants. Many modern-day plant-lovers know this type of organism as an “air plant.”

Unlike the average plant, which gets its nutrients from the soil through its roots, an epiphytic plant soaks in sustenance from rain, air, and even decomposed materials around them.

While an epiphyte may live on a host – most commonly a tall tree that gives them access to the sun and rain – it is not parasitic. A parasitic plant must steal its nutrients and livelihood from its host, but an epiphytic plant does not do this.

They simply coexist happily and live unobtrusively on another plant.

Epiphytes can be found primarily in dense, shaded forest areas that don’t see much light. They are common in the rainforest, where there are tropical temperatures and lots of humidity.

Despite the general lack of sunlight, these plants can thrive in the rainforest because they usually form high up on trees. This allows them to be closer to the sun and receive more sunlight.

Epiphytes can also derive nutrients from organic debris, such as leaves that collect in the tree canopies. Many of these plants also have large, cup-like leaves that allow them to catch and collect rainwater.

They also gather water through vapor found in the air; hence, their appropriate habitat is in the humid rainforest. While these plants typically do not grow in dirt, they still have roots that absorb water, nutrients, and minerals.

Where Are Epiphytes Found?

Orchid Growing on a Tree
Many epiphytes are found on tree trunks in warm and humid areas.

As mentioned above, most epiphytes can be found naturally in temperate zones such as rainforests. They can also grow and thrive in tropical and subtropical regions.

However, a rare species can be found growing in coastal deserts in Mexico and Texas. This particular species, the ball moss, gets its moisture from the marine fog in that area.

Essentially, you can find epiphytic plants wherever there are other plants. As long as the plant has access to moisture, it’s feasible for it to grow in that location.

Types of Epiphytes

Tillandsia is One of Many Types of Epiphytes
There are thousands of types of epiphytes or air plants.

There are many different kinds of epiphytic plants in the world (about 300,000), which are divided into different types, families, and species.

There are two main categories under which an epiphytic plant falls:

  • Terrestrial
  • Marine

The most common types of epiphytes are terrestrial, meaning they grow and live in dry environments. Most terrestrial epiphytes are flowering plants that grow on trees, rocks, and other kinds of vertical supports.

Marine epiphytes are those which grow in an aquatic ecosystem, that is, the water. Marine epiphytes are not as numerous as those in the terrestrial category, nor do they include many plants that you can keep in your home.

A few examples of marine epiphytes would be:

  • Algae
  • Fungi
  • Bacteria
  • Protozoa
  • Molluscs

Terrestrial epiphytes can be separated into even more categories.

Holo-Epiphytes

Purple Orchid is a Holo-Epiphyte Example
The orchid family is an example of a holo-epiphyte plant.

A holo-epiphyte is a plant that spends its entire life without coming into contact with the ground whatsoever. Instead, it resides on its host for the duration of its life.

Holo-epiphytes have specialized structures that let them attach to a host plant long-term and collect water, nutrients, and minerals as they trickle down their host.

One example of a common holo-epiphyte is the orchid family.

Hemi-Epiphytes

Vines Growing on a Tree is a Hemi-Epiphyte Example
Vines are an example of a hemi-epiphyte plant

Hemi-epiphytes don’t spend their whole lives attached to a host, but they do spend part of it. These types of plants typically start on a host and slowly make their way to the ground, where they can sprout roots that eventually penetrate the soil.

An excellent example of a hemi-epiphyte is a vine. Vines usually start growing on trees or even fences before reaching the ground and rooting themselves.

These plants can do this thanks to their vascular tissue, which allows them to absorb water and vital nutrients through the soil via their roots.

Proto-Epiphytes

Yellow Fungus is a Proto-Epiphyte Example
There are some types of fungi that are examples of proto-epiphytes.

Proto-epiphytes are epiphytic plants that rely on their host to get their food and nutrients. Don’t get things confused – these plants are still not parasitic.

Proto-epiphytic plants do not draw their nutrients out of their hosts. Instead, they lack any notable features (such as large leaves for catching rain) and are dependent on their hosts to receive their nourishment.

One example of a proto-epiphyte is certain types of fungi.

More Groupings

There are several ways you can group different kinds of epiphytes. We can group them as we explained above, but these categories are very general.

We can also split up the various kinds of epiphytes into vascular and nonvascular categories. This is a pretty standard way to categorize many types of plants – not just epiphytes.

Vascular plants possess vascular vessels that can transport water and nutrients to all parts of the plant.

A nonvascular plant does not have a vascular system. These plants are usually much smaller than vascular plants, and they don’t have the same kind of roots. Instead, they possess rhizoids, which are fine hairs that keep a plant rooted in place.

Beyond these two categories, we can categorize epiphytic plants using additional groupings.

Flowering Epiphytes

Some of the most common kinds of epiphytic plants are flowering plants. In fact, you will likely recognize the following two types on our list below.

Orchids

Blooming Pink Orchids Are Flowering Epiphytes
An example of flowering epiphytes is beautiful orchids.

Although many people recognize orchids as a common and beautiful flower, not many know that it is an epiphyte. These flowers form patches on the branches of other plants and can even attach to the stems of shrubs.

An orchid’s root system allows them to firmly attach to another plant and absorb and store water. They are vascular plants and make up almost 70 percent of vascular epiphytes.

Tillandsia

Tillandsia Hanging in a Box
Air plants or tillandsia are popular house plants because of how low-maintenance they are.

Like orchids, tillandsia plants are widespread, with more than 500 species. They are prevalent throughout North and South America and produce beautiful flowers.

Tillandsia plants have specialized roots that let them grasp onto other plants – most often trees. Their leaves produce hair-like tips that collect and absorb water and nutrients from the air, making roots unnecessary.

Bryophytes

Bryophytes are nonvascular plants, so they do not have a vascular system to nourish them. Since these plants do not have long roots, they don’t have enough support to reside high on trees like other epiphytes. Therefore, they’re more commonly found lower on tree trunks and other plants.

Epiphytic Mosses

Epiphytic Moss on a Tree Trunk
Mosses that cover the floor of a forest are considered epiphytes.

One of the most common examples of bryophytes is mosses. You’ve probably noticed many trees and even forest floors covered in soft, green moss without realizing that they are epiphytic plants.

This flowerless family of plants reproduce through spores and grow very close together, forming those carpet-like bunches you’re used to seeing.

Mosses can grow on tree trunks, branches, and surface roots and can even grow out to cover the forest floor. They absorb water through their leaves and take nutrients directly into their plant bodies.

Epiphytic Liverworts

Epiphytic Liverwort on a Tree Trunk
Epiphytic liverworts grow higher up on old tree trunks.

Liverworts are like mosses in that they do not have flowers and therefore reproduce through spores. They also cover large areas at once and are found in temperate zones like rainforests.

Liverworts can also grow on tree bark and are commonly found on very large and very old trees so that they can access the sunlight they need.

Other types prefer to grow on decaying plants.

Epiphytic Vines

Epiphytic Vines
It is typical to see vines growing on trees before rooting in solid because they are epiphytic.

Epiphytic vines are some of the most common types of epiphytes in the world. Vines have thin stems lined with leaves, and they attach themselves to plants and trees using their tiny roots.

Vines are vascular plants, meaning they have vascular tissue and transport water and nutrients throughout their system.

Vines are also classified as hemi-epiphytic because although they may start growing on a tree, plant, or even a fence or wall, they can continue to grow on the ground and root themselves into the soil.

Because their vines are so thin and weak, they cannot grow upright and thus depend on other plants to access direct sunlight and survive.

Hymenophyllaceae

Ferns are a Part of the Hymenophyllaceae Family
Though they develop an excellent root system, ferns can still grow on other plants.

The Hymenophyllaceae family has more than 600 species of ferns – all of which are flowerless and have thin leaves and threadlike stems.

Ferns are vascular plants with vascular tissue, which allows them to transport nutrients throughout the entire plant. Some even have very well-developed root systems, making them easy to care for and a popular plant to keep at home.

Because of their vascular systems, many of these plants can root in the ground. However, they will still attach to other plants as they grow.

Fungi

Brown Mushroom on the Floor of a Forest
Many types of fungi are epiphytic and rely on other plants to survive.

There are various types of fungi: some that grow on top of other plants, and others that develop inside the tissue of other plants. Those that grow on top of other plants are epiphytic fungi, but they cannot make their own food, unlike other epiphytes.

Thus, fungi have to rely on other plants even more than other kinds of epiphytes. While they are more reliant, they do not cause any impactful damage to their host plant.

How To Care for Epiphytic Plants

While epiphytic plants need a host plant in the wild to survive, you can grow them independently in your home so long as you can provide the ideal environment for them. They can make for a lovely addition to your garden or plant collection if you’re willing to put in the work to keep them thriving.

Start with Healthy Plants

Healthy Bromeliad Plant
Bromeliads are among some of the most popular epiphytic plants to grow in your home.

The best way to succeed with your epiphytic plant is to ensure you start with a healthy plant. When purchasing your plant, you should visit a nursery and seek saplings of the plant of your choice.

Be sure to inspect the plant thoroughly before buying it. A good starter plant will have a healthy stem with full, healthy leaves. Any plant with significant damage may not grow well.

Some popular plants choices for growing at home include:

With proper care, these plants can yield some gorgeous blooms.

Get a Proper Base

Prepping a Base for an Orchid
Curating a suitable base for your epiphytic plant is a great place to start when growing them at home.

As we learned above, an air plant would typically grow on the trunk of a tree or other larger plants. So, when you grow them at home, you must secure the appropriate base for your plant to grow on.

Some good replacement options include:

  • Fir bark
  • Charcoal
  • Redwood bark
  • Lava rock
  • Sphagnum moss

The goal here is to create an environment that encourages the plant’s roots to grow and absorb nutrients. You don’t want to suffocate the root system, which is why you need to secure a non-soil base.

Placement

Air Plants in Sunlight
Epiphytes thrive on indirect or partial sunlight, so find a good place in your home that provides this.

In its natural environment, such as the rainforest, an epiphytic plant is used to have its sunlight blocked by thick canopies. While it does need light to survive, it does not require direct sunlight.

That being said, it’s best to place your plant where it will receive partial or indirect sunlight. A little bit of shade will be better for it.

Watering

Spray Bottle Watering Air Plants Near a Window
Because there is no root system for your epiphyte to drink, it is best to find other ways to water it, like a spray bottle or root soak.

As with any kind of plant, your air plant needs water. However, keep in mind that it doesn’t receive water from the soil like your average potted plant.

Because these plants are aerophytes, their roots need consistent air circulation for them to grow and thrive. You should never completely drench our root system for long periods.

Instead, soak the roots in room temperature water for about 15 minutes. Do this just once per week for optimal results.

Final Thoughts

Epiphytic plants do best in humid environments, as we’ve already mentioned a few times above. So, if you can help it, try to keep your plant in a warm, humid location. This will help your plants grow well – especially orchids.

As such, you also need to keep your plants away from cold temperatures and strong winds. This might mean bringing your plants inside during certain seasons or weather conditions.

Finally, you can use fertilizer on your air plants. Do so sparingly and only once or twice per month. Liquid fertilizer works best, along with fish emulsion fertilizer.

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