“Epiphyte” is another word for “air plant.” They are a class of plants that grow up in trees, often with little to no contact to the soil below the tree. They are also not parasitic to the tree they live on, getting their nutrients from the air itself or what little else they can find on the branch, such as bird droppings. Epiphytes are common to tropical environments and somewhat less so in subtropical environments. While some kinds of epiphytes, such as tillandsias (which are a subgroup of bromeliads), are capable of surviving with literally no soil, most require a little. In the wild, plants firmly anchored to tree limbs attract debris and droppings, which break down into a sort of soil that collects on tree limbs. In fact, some of this soil has been found to be fertile enough that the trees grow roots out of their limbs to take advantage of the nutrients. However, the “soil” is always thin and light and drains well.
In cultivation, most epiphytes are grown wired or glued to a log or piece of bark with a little sphagnum moss packed around their roots. Some are grown in pots, but the soil is often loose and well-draining. Orchid bark is a good example of soil that is specifically designed for epiphytes, as most orchids are epiphytes. As for watering, a light mist two to four times a week will do for most species and nearly all prefer to dry out between waterings. Despite growing in wet climates, their soil is so thin that they are more adapted to dry conditions than many of their neighbors. Also many do not require any fertilizer at all. Many also prefer dappled light since they tend to have a canopy over their heads in the wild. All of these things make many epiphytes great houseplants and there are many varieties available. Below are some of the different types of epiphytes out there.
Most orchids (with the notable exception of Paphiopedilums) are epiphytes. I had a Phalaenopsis and an Encyclia that I grew epiphytically on a log in a dry climate for over a year. While both survived, neither flowered, probably due to the fact that I rarely fertilized them and watered them all too infrequently. Some orchids do better than others in that sort of situation, but most will die if planted in soil. Plus, the amazing blooms of these plants make them worth a try.
Bromeliads are probably the most famous of the air plants. While there are terrestrial bromeliads (pineapple is one), many are very epiphytic. I have three different Tillandsias that have been living without so much as a little sphagnum moss around their roots for over 4 years now. I suspect that if I was in a humid climate, I probably wouldn’t even have to spray them. If you look a little deeper than your local grocery store, you can find some bromeliads with really fascinating foliage. With proper care, they flower every 2 years or so, producing blooms that rival orchids. As a bonus, when the blooms fade, the parent plant produces pups, which are miniature plants. When those get to about half the size of the parent plant, they can be removed and planted elsewhere.
There are actually several varieties of vining, epiphytic cacti. Their adaptation to dry climates must have made this a natural move. I can only imagine that a dry-adapted plant moving into a moist environment would cause them to evolve to take advantage of the driest microclimate available. I am just starting to grow my first epiphytic cactus, but they are still just seedlings. I’ll talk more about that in my next post.
Nepenthes are commonly called “tropical pitcher plants.” They are a family of plants that start on the forest floor and then climb up the nearest tree. As with many tropical plants, they have a drip tip on the end of their leaves. Only in Nepenthes, the dip tip has become highly evolved. As the plant gets bigger and feels the lack of nutrients in its chosen home, the drip tip enlarges into a little pitcher that is used to capture and digest prey, thereby giving the plant the nutrients that growing on a tree lacks. The pitchers of nepenthes tend to be more elaborate than terrestrial pitcher plants and quite beautiful. In fact, some of the largest pitchers in the world belong to Nepenthes. Nepenthes rajah is reported to have pitchers big enough to capture a rat.
There are a couple of kinds of epiphytic ferns. The white rabbit foot fern has white, fuzzy aerial roots that sort of look like rabbits’ feet. However, by far the most fascinating of the epiphytic ferns are the staghorn ferns. A staghorn fern starts on the side of a tree and grows two kinds of fronds. The basal fronds grow short and round and cover the root ball, protecting and enlarging it over time. The fertile fronds are what the plant is named for. They grow long and wide and sort of resemble the antlers of a moose. Mature staghorn ferns can be several feet across and are absolutely majestic plants. Thus far my attempts to grow any epiphytic ferns have been unsuccessful as they don’t tolerate the lack of humidity in my climate.
While I have never grown an ant plant, and probably never will, I still find them fascinating. In addition to the usual complement of leaves, ant plants grow an enlarged, bulbous base that is riddled with tunnels. In the wild, ants move in and inhabit the tunnels, allowing the plant to take advantage of their waste.
If you are interested in possibly growing any of these epiphytes, I strongly recommend giving Black Jungle Terrarium Supply a visit. They specialize in supplies for making terrariums for poison dart frogs and have an amazing variety of epiphytic plants.