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What are epiphytes?

Published on January 10th 2019

by pippa.churcher. All rights reserved

You’ll see and hear the word epiphyte everywhere when it comes to houseplants and understanding what an epiphyte is can help with its growing needs.
What does ‘epiphyte’ mean? It comes from the Greek epi- and phyton, meaning ‘upon plant’. In the wild, epiphytes usually grow in rainforests.
The air here is so humid that they are able to grow directly on the trees that form these jungles, usually taking root in the nook of a branch.
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Many mosses and ferns pioneer these branches, making a base for larger species to colonise later.
This gives a good indication of how most epiphytes like to grow. They prefer a light growing medium, orchid compost is a good example, as this does not hold on to excess moisture in the way soil does.
Some don’t need any soil at all! High humidity is preferred and either misting or sitting over gravel helps. As they usually sit high up in the trees, nearer to the sun, but still filtered through branches, they like bright light but not direct, scorching summer sun.
Some of these epiphytes have evolved to absorb water through their leaves, such as the staghorn fern and, most famously, air plants.
Despite their unusual growing conditions, most species are relatively easy to grow and have become very popular, particularly with the latest revival in houseplants.

Here are 5 beginner’s epiphytes:

  • Moth orchid (Phalaenopsis spp.)

Moth Orchid

Phalaenopsis spp.

  • Staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum)
  • Bromeliads, including Aechmea (urn plant), Vriesia (flaming sword) and Guzmania
  • Christmas and Easter cacti (Schlumbergera and Rhipsalis spp.)
  • Air plants & Spanish moss (Tillandsia spp.)

And 5 more for those who prefer a challenge:

  • Anthuriums
  • Medinilla (Medinilla magnifica)
  • Goldfish plant (Columnea gloriosa)
  • Vanda orchid species
  • Hare’s foot fern (Davallia canariensis)

Not ready for that kind of plant challenge? Find simpler houseplants to care for here: