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A Natural History Lexicon | Epiphyte

ep·i·phyte
Noun

ˈepəˌfīt/

a plant that grows above the ground, supported nonparasitically byanother plant or object, and deriving its nutrients and water from rain,the air, dust, etc.; air plant; aerophyte.


My experiment didn’t go well. The shop was too warm, dry, and dark. No matter how many times I spritzed them, the ferns just wouldn’t bounce back. I suppose I was asking too much of them. Licorice ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) like it very wet, and these, harvested off the trunk of a dead elm, didn’t want to grow inside a garage in an industrial park. They’d worked wonders by surviving as epiphytes, high in the air, with seemingly little to thrive on. I cared for them, but it wasn’t enough, and after a week they were crispy.

I’m entirely not sure why I love epiphytes. Yes, the notion of a plant growing on another plant is amusing. The bizarre adaptations of epiphytes are certainly fascinating. But then again, I can get myself worked up about most corners of the natural history cabinet. The more you learn about practically any plant, the more you appreciate them.

Licorice fern growing on a vine maple.

Whether or not you knew the word, you probably understood what an epiphyte was. You’ve seen lichen (ok, not really just a plant) and moss growing on the sides of tree trunks. If you’ve spent time in a wet environment, you’ve probably noticed those ferns waving from the trunks of trees. If you live in the tropics or have traveled there, you’re intimately familiar with rabble of plants growing on plants. That Spanish moss you saw all over the trees at that venerable plantation home in the American South, while not actually moss (it’s a type of bromeliad), they’re most definitely epiphytic.

Orchids. Cacti. Bromeliads. Ferns. Mosses. Lichen. Liverworts. Members of all these plants are epiphytes. However, the term is descriptive of an adaptation, not a Linnean classification. Many disparate groups of plants have figured out may ways to be epiphytes.

Some, like those we call airplants or tillandsias, members of the bromeliad family (of which pineapples are also members), have gone long lengths to occupy an open niche. Unlike normal plants, who anchor themselves, draw up water and nutrients, form symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizae, and communicate with other plants (I know this last one sounds nuts, but it’s true) through their roots, airplants have given all this up and chose only to anchor. As a result, when I water my tillandsias at home, I mist their foliage, or soak them in water because they absorb water (and food) through scales or hairs that cover their leaves, called trichomes.

Lichen growing on pitaya cactus in Sonora, Mexico.

Ferns on the other hand, are plenty happy to get what they need from their roots. The licorice ferns I mentioned above, will grow as epiphytes but they are also root in the regular old ground. More often than not, when you find them growing on a tree trunk, it’s simply because a spore found a nice little nook that collects airborne particles of soil and gets good exposure to moisture. They may ground themselves in the trunk, but they aren’t quite as stalwart as airplants.

When I visited the Amazon rainforest in college, I wish I’d been a little less bird crazy, and a little more everything crazy. Had I been paying more attention as a naturalist, I would have noticed epiphytes galore, from tank bromeliads, hosting their own unique flora and fauna in the puddles trapped by their foliage, to aerial orchids and cacti, living the entirety of their lives hundreds of feet up in the air on tree branches. In retrospect I’m slightly amazed I don’t have strong memories of these aspects of the rainforest. Then again Amazonian biodiversity is completely overwhelming. Visiting another loci of tropical biodiversity, in Borneo, I did find myself enamored with the local epiphytes.

Nepenthes pitcher plants growing in Mt. Kinabalu National Park in Sabah, Borneo.

Beneath the bare rocky massif of one of the tallest mountains in Southeast Asia, Mt. Kinabalu, I couldn’t quite decide what I wanted to look for. Birds were singing everywhere, and some where endemic to the mountain, but I kept my eyes trained on plants. And finally, I found what I was looking for, a nepenthes pitcher plant, fluorescent green and sanguine scarlet. But this was not just any pitcher plant, but one growing on vines from the branches of the stooped subalpine tree only a few feet taller than me. What was really exciting, if I was correct in my identification, was that this one was only found on Kinabalu. And it was an epiphyte, and like most eiphytes, it was living life and doing no harm to its host. All the while though, it was happily supplementing a substrate poor in nutrients, by luring insects into pitchers, trapping them, and digesting them with the liquids within. An epiphytic, carnivorious plant that only lives within a dozen square miles on a mountain on the 4th largest island in the world. Pretty frickin’ nuts.

I’ve seen epiphytes almost everywhere I’ve traveled, but this was the beginning of my love affair. I was so taken by these plants, that I decided I needed one for myself. So, a few months ago, I found myself walking out of the local indoor plant shop, with my very own nepenthes. It doesn’t grow from a tree branch, but it is now draping nicely out of a hanging pot in a west facing window. Nearby is a staghorn fern mounted to a board, eleven tillandsias, and a creeping cacti I am sure would have grown in a tropical canopy though I have no clue as to its identity. Turns out, I like epiphytes.

Nepenthes growing in my living room!

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