Including what they are and how to keep them happy indoors.
An epiphyte is a type of plant that grows on another plant but is not parasitic. Epiphytes don’t require much (if any) soil as their roots absorb water and micronutrients from the air and debris around them. If this concept sounds foreign when it comes to houseplants – think again. There are lots of different epiphytic houseplants that are extremely popular, including orchids, some fern varieties, bromeliads, air plants (Tillandsia), and more. Some plants like monsteras, climbing philodendrons, raphidophoras, and pothos are considered hemiepiphytes – a term referring to plants that spend only part of their life cycle as an epiphyte.
So why does all of this matter? Epiphytes have specific needs when it comes to their growing conditions, and meeting these needs will result in healthier, happier houseplants. Here is what you need to know about growing epiphytic houseplants successfully.
The term ‘epiphyte’ comes from the Greek ‘epi’, meaning ‘upon’, and ‘phyton’ meaning ‘plant’.
Light, Water, & Soil
Most epiphytes thrive with bright, indirect light. This is because they are accustomed to growing in the forest understory where they receive dappled sunlight. Placing your epiphytic houseplant a couple feet from a sunny window or behind a sheer curtain is a great way to provide indirect light.
Epiphytes enjoy consistent moisture, but in the same vein can be sensitive to overwatering. Many epiphytes do well with infrequent but deep watering. For example, orchids do best when they are soaked in water for 20-30 minutes once or twice a week and then drained completely. The way that you water your epiphytic houseplant will depend on how you are growing it so ensure that you do research on how your specific plant enjoys being watered.
As mentioned, epiphytes generally do not require a lot (or any) soil. That being said, many still grow well in a rich, airy potting medium. Orchid bark is a great choice for lots of different epiphytes, or you can use a chunky soil mix like this one. Alternatively, you can forego soil altogether and mount your epiphyte on a display or piece of wood. Some air plants like Tillandsia can even be displayed without any soil or mount.
Temperature and Humidity
In general, epiphytes thrive in warm temperatures and high humidity. Tolerance to colder temperatures and dry conditions will vary depending on the species of epiphyte.
Mounting & Displaying Epiphytes
Mounting epiphytes on a piece of wood, cork, or bark is a fun way to grow and display these fascinating plants. Moist sphagnum moss is used around the roots of the plant as a medium to provide moisture and nutrients to the plant. Then the ball of sphagnum moss can be secured to the mount using twine, wire, hot glue, or even panty hose attached to small nails. Ensure that you choose a mount that is free of chemicals and salts. Once the epiphyte is properly mounted, you can display your mounted plant like a piece of artwork by adding it to a wall or small shelf. Just ensure that your plant still receives adequate light!
Caring for Mounted Epiphytes
Caring for mounted epiphytes differs slightly from caring for epiphytes that are grown terrestrially (in a soil mix). The differences arise mostly when it comes to watering. You will need to ensure that the sphagnum moss stays consistently moist. This can be done through regular misting, or you can carefully wet the moss once it starts to show signs of drying out by bringing the entire mount to a sink and running the moss under water.
Types of Epiphytic Houseplants
There are over 20,000 species of epiphytes around the world. The following epiphytes are some of the most popular for growing indoors.
- Staghorn Fern
- Birds Nest Fern
- Rabbit Foot Fern
- Holiday Cacti (Christmas cactus, Easter cactus, Thanksgiving cactus)
- Mistletoe Cactus
- Orchid Cactus
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