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What are Epiphytic Plants?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Epiphytic plants are plants which rely on other plants for support, growing on trunks and branches rather than rooting themselves to the ground, or the seafloor, in the case of aquatic epiphytes. It is estimated that there are around 30,000 epiphytic plant species around the world, with around half of those species dwelling in the rainforest. The proliferation of such plants illustrates how very effective their lifestyle can be.

These plants are not parasitic: they do not derive any nutrients from their hosts. Instead, they gather nutrients from the air or water around them, relying on their host to provide physical support in the form of a place to call home. Epiphytic plants come in a wide array of shapes, sizes, and colors, all of which produce copious seeds to ensure that the plants continue to survive. Unlike plants on the ground, epiphytes cannot count on a high germination rate, as their seeds have to land in just the right spot.


In the rainforest, epiphytic plants collect in the forest canopy. Because they can grow up in the air, they can position themselves in a sunny location, putting them at an advantage over plants on the ground, which are heavily shaded. Living in the canopy also gives epiphytic plants access to an array of animals and insects rarely seen near the ground, and to more water. Many animals use epiphytes in the rainforest as habitats, living in the hollows created by their leaves.

Orchids are a very well known group of epiphytes, as are bromeliads. These tropical plants are physically quite striking, and they are popular houseplants as well. Epiphytes can also be found in the ocean, attaching themselves to various seaweeds, and in temperate forests. These plants are considered by some researchers to be a great example of convergent evolution, as numerous plant species adapted epiphytic characteristics, suggesting that the epiphytic lifestyle is a logical progression in plant evolution.

Although epiphytic plants are not parasitic, they can still harm their hosts. Some strip protective bark away as they put down roots, for example, and many shade the leaves of their hosts, preventing them from photosynthesizing. Epiphytic plants can also attract insects which may damage a tree, and they can increase wind resistance, which can be dangerous for trees in windy areas. Naturally, epiphytes do not want to kill their hosts, however, so many have evolved to live as symbiotically as possible in a mutually beneficial relationship. For example, epiphytes can store water and nutrients which can be used by their hosts.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly are epiphytic plants?

Epiphytic plants are a fascinating group of plants that grow on other plants for physical support. They are not parasitic; instead, they obtain moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and debris accumulating around them. Orchids, ferns, and bromeliads are well-known examples, often found in tropical and subtropical forests.

How do epiphytic plants differ from parasitic plants?

Unlike parasitic plants, which extract water and nutrients from their host, epiphytic plants are benign inhabitants. They use the host plant merely as a perch to access better sunlight or moisture conditions. Epiphytes are self-reliant, performing photosynthesis and sourcing water and nutrients from their surroundings without harming their host.

Where are epiphytic plants commonly found?

Epiphytic plants are predominantly found in moist, tropical climates where humidity is high and trees are abundant. According to research, tropical rainforests, with their dense canopies and high biodiversity, are hotspots for epiphytic species, providing the perfect environment for these plants to thrive.

Can epiphytic plants survive indoors, and how do you care for them?

Yes, many epiphytic plants can be grown indoors with proper care. They require bright, indirect light, consistent moisture, and good air circulation. It's important to mimic their natural habitat, which can be done by mounting them on bark or placing them in a well-draining potting mix designed for epiphytes. Regular misting can help maintain the humidity they love.

What ecological roles do epiphytic plants play in their environments?

Epiphytic plants play crucial ecological roles in their habitats. They provide microhabitats for a variety of organisms, contribute to the diversity of the canopy ecosystem, and participate in nutrient cycling within the forest. By trapping organic debris, they create a rich substrate that can be used by other plants and animals, enhancing biodiversity.

Are there any threats to epiphytic plants in the wild?

Epiphytic plants face several threats in the wild, including deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and climate change. As trees are cut down, the essential platforms for these plants disappear, leading to a decline in their populations. Conservation efforts are vital to protect the intricate ecosystems where epiphytes play an integral role.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments


My grandma was given a leaf that she pinned to her curtain by the kitchen sink. It grew there, adding one leaf after another and becoming a vine, for all of my childhood. Loss of heat, overnight ended its reign. I was hoping to find out if it was an epiphyte, and what type it would have been.


very informative and helped me with my home work!


Thank you. The only useful website i found. :)


that really helped me with my geography project.


whew. at least one good page about epiphytes.


it was really helpful and interesting


Thanks, it was very straightforward and helpful.

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