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Growing Epiphytes – amazing plants

What is an epiphyte?  The definition of epiphyte is one plant living on another plant that is not parasitic.

The Spanish moss hanging from oak trees in the Southern U.S. is an epiphytic bromeliad.  Spanish moss does not harm the oak tree. In fact, there are actual benefits that epiphytes provide their hosts. The trees provide an anchor or substrate upon which the epiphyte can attach itself and grow happily while the tree gains nutritional benefits from the epiphyte as it accumulates decomposed organic material. Recent research of life in the tree canopy has produced many fascinating biological studies about the complexities of these relationships.

Since these unique plants do not grow in soil, they are known by many as air plants. This group of epiphytes is known as Tillandsia. Epiphytes depend on nutrients from fallen debris which is breaking down in and around the plants. Their moisture comes from humid air, moisture on the substrate, and rain fall. The fuzzy white hair-like things on the leaves are tricomes which take in nutrients from air and water.

I grow epiphytes during the warm season. They can be hung from trees or nestled in shrubs and vines. Since most epiphytes are tropical or sub-tropical, they are not hardy in our zone. I bring them in for the winter and take them back outside for the warmer months.  Indoors they need humid air and, therefore, should not be placed near a heating outlet. They need to be spritzed with water occasionally. Place your epiphytes in bright light but they cannot tolerate direct sunlight. I suggest that you dunk them in water every couple weeks.

Some epiphytes have cups in the center, a structure formed by the tightly overlapping leaf bases. These cups collect water and debris. As the debris decomposes, it provides nutrients and creates small watery ecosystems that provide an excellent habitat for frogs and other creatures.

A great way to display and grow epiphytes is to attach them to driftwood or non-treated wood such as cedar or juniper. They look wonderful in terrariums but if you place them on soil be sure it is well drained and not too wet as this could cause them to rot. Try setting them in the crevices of houseplants.

Epiphytes are great fun for children to grow and to learn about. Most garden centers have interesting selections to choose from.

Indoor Plant Tips

  1. The most common way that houseplants are killed is by overwatering. For most indoor plants you should let them get dry between waterings. Ideally the soil should be moist but not wet. Use water that is room temperature.

  2. Do not be afraid to cut back indoor plants when they have become too big or are getting leggy.

  3. If your house plants have aphids the best way to get rid of them is to cut off the part of the plant with the worst infestation. Another option is to spray them with a blend of dish washing soap and water or use a Safer’s Soap product.


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