Epiphytes and Parasites

Trichomes on an air plant Plants that grow on other plants or objects solely for support are called epiphytes (or air plants). Epiphytes attach to trees, rocks, and other objects, but do not take energy, water, or nutrients from them. Instead, epiphytes produce their own energy by photosynthesis, and get their water and nutrients from the air, the rain, and from the dust and organic debris that accumulates around them. Epiphytes use their roots and/or rhizomes to hold tight to their hosts. Most epiphytes absorb water and nutrients through their leaves, which often have specialized “hairs”, called trichomes, that facilitate the process.

Epiphytes are most prevalent in tropical rain forests where humidity is high, but there are some in temperate, even dry habitats too. The seeds of epiphytes are often very small, the better to sail on the wind to a new host. Others have seeds that are deposited on tree branches in the excrement of birds. It is estimated that there are more than 30,000 species of epiphytes spread across some 83 plant families. Familiar epiphytes include certain species of bromeliads, orchids, cacti, ferns, mosses, algae, and lichens.

Many species of bromeliads are epiphytic. These have spirally arranged leaves that overlap at their bases to form a funnel-like tank where water and nutrient-rich debris accumulate and are then absorbed. Various animals, including certain tropical frogs and various insects (including mosquitoes!), breed in these reservoirs. Fun fact: bromeliads are actually a member of the pineapple family.

Spanish moss is a bromeliad that has tiny specialized hairs that trap and absorb water and nutrients from the air. An interesting fact about Spanish moss is that it blooms once a year with dainty light green flowers. They are not very noticeable so look very closely in March or April in some parts of the South… especially in North Florida where Spanish moss grows like a weed.

Spanish moss blooming in Tallahassee, Florida – photo taken by one of our employees

Some epiphytic ferns grow in a large nest-like basket of overlapping leaves that collects debris and water.

Massive staghorn fern

Epiphytic cacti are often succulent and thus capable of staying hydrated when the humidity is low.

This is an epiphytic cactus:

Many epiphytic orchids have aerial roots that are covered with a whitish, spongy tissue that absorbs nutrients, rain and even water vapor directly from the atmosphere.

Unlike epiphytes, Parasitic plants steal their energy, water and nutrients from other plants. Parasites have specialized roots that penetrate their host plant. There are some 4,500 species of parasitic plants in 20 families. Dodder (Cuscuta sp.) is a parasitic vine that sprawls over other plants and penetrates their stems and leaves to steal food, nutrients, and water.

Dodder parasitic plant

Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) makes its own food by photosynthesis, but it also takes some food from its host plant, and is thus classified as a hemi-parasite.

Saprophytes are organisms that get at least some of their energy and nutrients from dead vegetation. Many fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms (but no known plants) are saprophytes. Indian pipes (Monotropa sp.) is a plant that was thought to be a saprophyte, but we now know that it actually parasitizes a saprophytic fungus that grows between dead plant material and the roots of conifers. So Indian pipes is actually a parasite of a fungus, technically a myco-heterotroph.

Indian Pipes

In Conclusion//Epiphytic Plant Care

Successful cultivation of epiphytes requires a knowledge of their requirements and capabilities. Most thrive in humid environments and appreciate being misted frequently. Epiphytic orchids, mounted to a wooden board or piece of cork, are happy in moderate light in the bathroom, where the humidity is high. Bromeliads are often placed in a well-drained medium or even an empty pot that will hold them upright. Water bromeliads in the cup-like rosette of leaves at the base of the plant.

Humidify the air around epiphytes grown in pots by standing the container in a saucer filled with water. Humid air supplies all the moisture many epiphytes will
ever need.

Related: Common Nutrient Deficiencies In Plants

Or if you are really feeling funky, you can give your epiphytes a bath if they are air plants or orchids without a planting medium. They love to absorb the water for about 20 minutes and they are good to go. Whichever epiphytes you choose to grow at home, know that they will do well and are easy to care for while providing beautiful aesthetic and greenery in your own space.

Happy planting!!