Types Of Epiphytes – What Is An Epiphyte Plant And Adaptations Of Epiphytes

Types Of Epiphytes – What Is An Epiphyte Plant And Adaptations Of Epiphytes

By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

Both tropical and rainforests feature an incredible array of plants. Those that dangle from trees, rocks and vertical supports are called epiphytes. Tree epiphytes are called air plants because they have no firm grip in the earth. This fascinating collection of plants is also fun to grow indoors or out in the garden. Find answers on what is an epiphyte plant so you can introduce this unique form to your indoor or outdoor landscape.

What is an Epiphyte Plant?

The word epiphyte comes from the Greek “epi”, which means “upon” and “phyton”, which means plant. One of the amazing adaptations of epiphytes is their ability to attach to vertical surfaces and capture their water and much of their nutrient needs from sources other than soil.

They may be found on branches, trunks and other structures. While epiphytes may live on other plants, they are not parasites. There are many types of epiphytes, with the majority being found in tropical and cloud forests. They get their moisture from the air but some even live in desert terrain and gather moisture from fog.

Types of Epiphytes

You might be surprised what plants have the adaptations of epiphytes. Tree epiphytes are usually tropical plants such as bromeliads, but they may also be cacti, orchids, aroids, lichens, moss and ferns.

In tropical rain forests, giant philodendrons wrap themselves around trees but are still not tethered to the ground. The adaptations of epiphytes allow them to grow and flourish in areas where ground is difficult to reach or already populated by other plants.

Epiphytic plants contribute to a rich ecosystem and provide canopy food and shelter. Not all plants in this group are tree epiphytes. Plants, such as mosses, are epiphytic and may be seen growing on rocks, the sides of houses and other inorganic surfaces.

Adaptations of Epiphytes

The flora in a rainforest is diverse and thickly populated. The competition for light, air, water, nutrients and space is fierce. Therefore, some plants have evolved to become epiphytes. This habit allows them to take advantage of high spaces and upper story light as well as misty, moisture-laden air. Leaf litter and other organic debris catches in tree crotches and other areas, making nutrient-rich nests for air plants.

Epiphyte Plant Care and Growth

Some plant centers sell epiphytic plants for home gardeners. They need to have a mount in some cases, such as Tillandsia. Affix the plant to a wooden board or cork piece. The plants gather much of their moisture from the air, so place them in moderate light in the bathroom where they can get water from shower steam.

Another commonly grown epiphyte is the bromeliad. These plants are grown in well-drained soil. Water them in the cup at the base of the plant, which is designed to capture moisture out of misty air.

For any epiphytic plant, try to mimic the conditions of its natural habitat. Orchids grow in shredded bark and need average light and moderate moisture. Take care not to overwater epiphytic plants since they supplement their moisture needs from the air. Humid conditions often provide all the moisture a plant will need. You can assist the plant by misting the air around it or putting the pot in a saucer of rocks filled with water.

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Why is this important in houseplant growing?

Because trying to grow some epiphytes as houseplants is a set up for failure unless you need the specific needs of the plant.

Here are examples of epiphytes. some may surprise you. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and there are some species within every genus that can function as terrestrial plants. But largely many of these species do not need SOIL to grow.

Ferns, including Staghorns and many ferns
Bromeliads, Tillandsias
Many orchids
some cacti (epiphytic jungle species)
Many aroids (Anthurium, Philodendron, Monstera, and many others)
Some Ficus species
some Hedychium gingers (longicornutum, hasseltii, samuiense)
some Costus gingers (African species such as laterifolius, talbotii)
The Myrmecodia (Ant Plants)
Columnea (the Goldfish plants)
Dischidias and most Hoyas

In fact there are an estimated 30,000 species of epiphytes worldwide.

Why is this important to you as a houseplant grower?

Because potting an epiphyte as a terrestrial plant in peaty potting soil can cause it to do poorly or even die.

Plants like these need a different mix. They need something light, porous and very fast draining which actually contains very little or no soil.

The most common plants that people treat as terrestrials that should be treated as epiphytes are the Monsteras. Monsteras are actually in a special class of epiphytes called HEMI-EPIPHYTES. This group is divided into two groups. primary and secondary.
Hemi-epiphytes spend part of their lives as true epiphytes.

An example of a primary epiphyte is the Banyan tree (the stranger fig). It starts life as a seed dropped in a tree that germinates and sends massive amounts of roots down to the earth to root. Stranger figs are not parasites but they usually kill their host by constriction and causing loss of light to the host. Monstera deliciosa can be a primary or a secondary epiphyte

Secondary epiphytes start as seeds that germinate on the forest floor and grow into vines that seek a host to climb. Once they climb high enough they will send adventitious roots down to the ground which root, and they will then frequently sever their connection to the soil by allowing their primary trunks to wither and died back, so that they are rooted only to the host, and stabilized by the roots they send down to the ground. Examples of this are many scandent Philodendrons, some vining Anthuriums and Monstera adansonii, Monstera dubia, Scindapsus .

If you are growing epiphytes, you should research your plant and find out how it should be grown. Most thrive in a simple container of Sphagnum moss. Others will do fine in nothing but bagged orchid bark. Some like additions of things like chopped coconut husk, coarse perlite, horticultural charcoal. These plants like to have water pass their roots quickly and drain away. They do not like water around their roots continuously, which is what happened when you pot something in potting soil.

Giving your epiphytic plants the closest thing you can to their natural growing conditions can greatly increase the chances that you will be a successful grower.


-Epiphyte growing in the rainforest.

Bromeliads that are epiphytes use their roots primarily as anchors. The roots grasp the substrate and fasten the plant securely to that substrate. They have special scales on their leaves called trichomes. The trichomes take in water from the air. Many epiphytic bromeliads also have a rosette shape that forms a central cup. The central cup collects water and debris that decomposes and provides nutrients. The central cup can also provide excellent habitat for many frogs, insects and other small creatures.


Ball moss (Tillandsia recurvata) growing on the side of a pine tree.
Photo: Barbara Larson UF/IFAS

Many homeowners get worried when they see an odd plant clinging to the side of their tree, but the fear is often unwarranted.

These usually turn out to be epiphytes, plants that requires another plant as a support, but don't take anything from the host. Many of these interesting plants are rare, and some are even endangered.

Unlike parasitic plants, epiphytes get everything they need from the sun, moisture in the air, and organic matter that falls their way. Spanish moss is an epiphyte, as are many bromeliads and orchids. Some ferns, algae, and lichens are also epiphytic. Epiphytes may live high in the tree canopy or on the trunk of a tree. Many are also found in the lower branches, where they enjoy the shade. Some epiphytic plants can be grown in soil, but require relatively small containers. Others can be grown on driftwood or slabs of bark fiber available from the garden center, and make lovely accents for the patio or porch.

Plant-plant relationships

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An example of a beneficial, plant-plant relationship familiar to many gardeners is the "Three Sisters Garden." Native Americans planted three crops together—corn, beans, and squash—knowing that each had something to offer the others. The corn plants grew straight and tall, giving the pole beans something to climb on. The beans, since they are legumes, contributed nitrogen to the soil. And the pumpkins shaded out competing weeds.

And even something as simple as the relationship of a tree to the groundcover beneath it can be considered a beneficial, plant-plant relationship. The tree casts shade, providing habitat for a shade-loving groundcover, and the groundcover in turn keeps more deep-rooted and competitive grasses at bay.

Epiphytes. One interesting group of plants are the epiphytes. Relatively rare in temperate regions, epiphytes are quite common in tropical rainforests. An epiphyte is a plant that grows on another plant, neither harming nor helping it. For example, mosses can be epiphytic, growing harmlessly on tree trunks.

More exclusively epiphytic plants are the bromeliads and some orchids.

Bromeliads are plants that commonly grow high in the branches of tropical rainforest trees. They are often found in the joint where a branch meets the trunk there, fallen plant debris collects, providing a source of nutrients to the bromeliad. Some species of bromeliad have cup-shaped leaf rosettes. The cup fills with water during the frequent rains, and the plant is able to use this supply to fill its water needs. Though bromeliads perch in the branches, they do no harm to the tree. They photosynthesize their own food—their roots never penetrate the tree’s bark, so don’t draw any of their nutrients from the host tree. They simply perch there, high in the canopy, where light is more plentiful than on the forest floor.

Epiphytic orchids can also be found perched in trees in the rainforest like bromeliads, they collect nutrients from organic debris. Orchids are able to fill at least some of their water requirements by absorbing water vapor through their long, aerial roots.

Now let’s look at some less benign relationships between plants.

Although houseplant bromeliads are usually grown in a blended potting mix, many species are epiphytic plants when found in their native range—the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. Some common genera of bromeliads used as houseplants include:

  • Guzmania: This genus includes most of the most common and readily available species, including G. lingulata, G. zahnii , G. Guzmania sanguinea, and G.monostachia. These plants have long, flat glossy green leaves. The most common varieties have bracts that are bright red (one common name for this plant is scarlet star), but depending on species, there are some that are yellow, orange, purple, or pink. The blooms are very long-lasting, holding up for two to four months.
  • Neoregelia: This is the most diverse of all the bromeliad genera. Those species used as houseplants have some of the most colorful bracts, ranging from pink to deep purple. These plants tend for form, short, fairly flat rosettes of leaves some miniatures are no more than 1 inch across while other plants can be as much as 40 inches wide.
  • Vriesea: The species in the Vriesea genus features tropical, feather-like blooms and variegated foliage. Among the popular varieties are V. splendens and the hybrid Vreisea' Fireworks'.
  • Ananas comosus 'Champaca':Ananas is the genus that includes the common pineapple, and the cultivar of one species, A. Comosus 'Champaca', is an ornamental pineapple often grown as a houseplant. This bromeliad features spidery leaves and miniature pineapples on top of the flower spike.

The ꞌSilver Vaseꞌ Bromeliad (Aechmea fascaita) flowers have pink bracts.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Urn Plants (Aechmea species): Urn plants are easy, dependable bloomers. They have a tremendous diversity of color, form, and texture. Spiny-edged leaves may be solid green, other colors, speckled, or have bands of silver scales.

Nearly all do well when mounted, provided they are started young before the plants are large. Give them bright light and very warm temperatures. Keep their cup filled with water, but allow the potting mix to dry between watering. Fertilize lightly in summer months.

  • Aechmea fasciata: This commonly available funnel-shaped plant has leaves that are curved at the top and numerous light blue flowers borne in a dense pink spike.
  • Aechmea fendleri: A large panicle of blue berries and almost purplish bracts top a 24 -to 30-inch rosette of light green leaves.
  • Aechmea ‘Foster’s Favorite’: Upright rosette with striking lacquered wine-red leaves pendant spike of coral red pear-shaped berries tipped with midnight blue flowers.
  • Aechmea chantinii: Colorful open rosette of hard olive green leaves with pronounced pinkish-gray cross bands. The flower stalk is a branched spike with tight red bracts tipped yellow.

Pineapple (Ananas species): Ornamental pineapples are large plants with leaves that can reach three to five feet long. They require strong light, rich soil, regular feeding, and plenty of moisture. The plants have dense rosettes of spiny leaves from which the flower develops to produce a typical pinecone-shaped fruit. Pineapples can be propagated from pups at the base of the plant or by planting the topknot of the fruit.

  • Variegated Pineapple (A. comosus v. variegatus): Variegated pineapple has longitudinally striped leaves that turn pink in bright light.
  • Red Pineapple (A. bracteatus v. tricolor): The fruit is large and reddish, with numerous offsets at the bottom.
  • Dwarf Pineapple (A. nanus): Dwarf pineapple looks like a dwarf version of A. comosus with tiny, thumb-sized fruit.

Earth Stars (Cryptanthus species): Earth stars grow almost flat against the ground and resemble brightly colored starfish. The solid, striped, or banded leaves may be green, brown, bronze, silver, white, or pink. The flowers are inconspicuous. Earth stars are terrestrial bromeliads, and their growth requirements are different from epiphytic bromeliads. They cannot be mounted and need to be grown in rich, organic soil. Allow the mixture to dry slightly between watering and fertilize monthly from mid-spring through early fall. They grow well in bright, diffused light. Earth star’s compact size makes them ideal for dish gardens.

  • Cryptanthus bromelioides var. Tricolor: The beautiful foliage is striped white on green.
  • Cryptanthus ‘It’: White-and green-striped leaves are tinged pink on plants grown in bright light.
  • Cryptanthus fosteriana: This earth star has chocolate-brown leaves with zebralike gray stripes.
  • Cryptanthus zonatus ‘Zebrinus’: ‘Zebrinus’ has reddish-brown leaves with silvery zigzag bands.
  • Cryptanthus ‘Black Prince’: ‘Black Prince’ has deep maroon to almost black foliage the leaves are stiff and fleshy.

Air Pine or Living Vase (Guzmania species): Air pines are spectacular in bloom. The flower spikes grow out of the center of the plants and long-lasting, brilliantly colorful bracts. The graceful green or variegated pliable leaves lack spines. Guzmanias can grow in containers or on trees.

Guzmanias are more sensitive than many other bromeliads. They need moderate light, stable warm temperatures, and constantly moist air. To ensure success, maintain high humidity, and good air movement. The hybrids are generally easier to grow than the species and are usually more spectacular.

  • Guzmania lingulata: The flower stalk grows out of the rosette of leaves and has bracts ranging in color from yellow to orange to red to deep purple. Many color variations have been selected and named. G. lingulata and its hybrids are easy to grow.
  • Guzmania zahnii: This air pine has a brilliant red and yellow flower stalk. It is easy to grow, but some of the hybrids developed from it are more challenging.

Blushing Bromeliad or Fingernail Plant (Neoregelia species): Neoregelias are spectacular foliage plants. They provide riots of color with their green, bronze, yellow, orange, red, purple, pink, and white leaves. The colors often change when the plants begin to flower.

Neoregelia do best when underpotted and underfed, grown on the dry side in strong light. Frequent fertilization or too little light will cause the leaves to turn green. Keep water in the cup.

  • Neoregelia spectabilis: Leaves are narrow, gray-striped beneath, green above with red tips. The inner leaves are edged in purple with blue flowers.
  • Neoregelia carolinæ: When in flower, the leaves turn red, attracting insect pollinators. In its natural habitat, this plant is often used as a shelter by many animals, including frogs.
  • Neoregelia ‘Guinea’: This highly speckled bromeliad is a small grower at about 6 to 8 inches in a compact, somewhat upright rosette.
  • Neoregelia meyendorffii ‘Spineless’: Growth is compact, in tight rosettes. The leaves are glossy and flush bright red at flowering.
  • Neoregelia ‘Morado’: A wide-leafed purple-centered plant that will reach maximum color in low light conditions. The deep green, white-edged leaves flush when in bloom. In intense light, it develops dark concentric bands.

Air Plants (Tillandsia species): Tillandsias are the largest group of epiphytic bromeliads. They are twisted wiry plants whose leaves are covered with silver-grey scales. Some have plain green leaves. Several have bright pink flower stalks and blue, purple, red, orange, or white flowers. The leaves flush red on flowering plants.

Tillandsias are considered easy-care plants. Generally, tillandsias with hard, silver-grey leaves can be mounted on driftwood or another support in bright filtered sunlight. Grow tillandsias with soft green leaves in less light, in containers, and keep them moister.

Tillandsias need frequent (every two to three days) misting to provide needed moisture. You can also immerse the entire plant in room-temperature water for about half an hour every week to 10 days. Tillandsias can be grown in a kitchen or bathroom window, where the humidity from washing dishes or taking showers will supply them with water. They should be misted occasionally with very dilute liquid fertilizer.

The tiny silver scales that cover the plant absorb all its moisture and nutrients. The scales are essential to the plant’s survival. Handle the plants as little as possible to avoid accidentally rubbing off the scales.

  • Tillandsia cyanea: This is the most popular species of air plants. Striking pink quill-like bracts surround large, bright purple flowers. The foliage of this terrestrial species is a mass of thin, recurved green leaves in a rosette form. Easily grown indoors in bright, filtered sunlight. It needs moist soil and can be mounted on branches if moss is used at its base.
  • Tillandsia caput-medusae: This easy to grow, clumping species has silvery twisty leaves and a bulbous base. The flower stalk is red.
  • Tillandsia plumosa: This plant forms a ball of fuzzy silver leaves that grow on rocks and limbs in dry forests.

The air plant, (Tillandsia ioantha) is easy to grow.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • Tillandsia usneoides – Spanish Moss: Spanish moss is native from the coast to the lower piedmont in South Carolina. The slender stems hang to 20 feet or more over trees, fences, and telephone wires. It can also be grown indoors in bright light.
  • Tillandsia utriculata v. pringleyi: A decorative species with rather thin, grayish silver leaves in an upright rosette. The flower stalk is branched and red to orange or pink, with green.

Vrieseas: Vrieseas are large bromeliads, and may reach 2 to 3 feet or taller as houseplants. Many have exotically patterned and colorful, spineless foliage. Others have solid green, soft leaves. They flower in late winter with brightly colored flower spikes that last several months.

The Flaming Sword Bromeliad (Viresea carinata) has branching flower spikes.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Vrieseas are epiphytes. They have shallow root systems and should be kept relatively dry. They are much like guzmanias in their cultural needs. Give them moderate light, stable warm temperatures, and constantly moist air. They may be fed through the leaves with very dilute liquid fertilizer.

The soft, green-leafed species and their hybrids prefer more moisture and shade, while plants with banded or silvery leaves should be grown with less water and more light.

V. flammea: Red flowers, recommended for beginning bromeliad growers.

  • V. carinata: Compact, has a flat flower stalk, with yellow, orange, or red bracts. It has been used to produce many hybrids.
  • V. bleheri: Green leaves shaded purple and bright yellow bracts.
  • V. guttata: The green leaves are spotted brown. Pendulous flowers lined with pink bracts.
  • V. saundersii: Compact, has beautiful silver-grey leaves.
  • V. fenestralis: has yellow-green leaves marked dark green.

Hybrid Vrieseas:

  • ‘Christianne’:Glossy green leaves with bright, waxy red spikes and yellow flowers. Rarely exceeds 12 inches.
  • ‘Splenriet’: The dark green leaves are marked with wide purplish-black bands. Bright yellow flowers emerge from a vibrant red-orange spike.
  • ‘Charlotte’: An excellent plant with a colorful branched spike of yellow, with a little red. They can grow to 18 inches tall or so but will stay smaller if grown in a small container
  • ‘Ella’:A small hybrid with crimson branches and yellow flowers. Perfect for terrariums or other small spaces.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at [email protected] or 1-888-656-9988.

Original Author(s)

Karen Russ, Former HGIC Horticulture Specialist, Clemson University
Al Pertuit, PhD, Emeritus Faculty, Horticulture, Clemson University

Revisions by:

Mark Arena, Specialty Crop Agent, Cooperative Extension Service, Clemson University

This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement of brand names or registered trademarks by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied, nor is any discrimination intended by the exclusion of products or manufacturers not named. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.

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