Garden Bling: Adding Epiphytic Plants to Your Landscape

Gardeners in Central Florida enjoy many advantages over their counterparts around the country; one of them is the huge palette of plants they can consider for their sub-tropical gardens.  A plant group that is often overlooked is the epiphytes; the jewels that can make a tropical garden really sparkle! “Epi-whats?”, you ask?  The Latin-based word epiphyte is a scientific term used to describe plants that don’t grow in soil, but instead inhabit the branches of trees.  “Epi-“ means “upon” and “-phyte” means “plant”, so an epiphyte is a plant growing upon something else, typically a tree.  How can these plants survive without having roots in soil?  Competition for sunlight on a tropical forest floor can be fierce, but epiphytes have anatomical adaptations that allow them to live closer to the sun, up in the tree canopy.  Collecting and storing water is critical for survival in the treetops, and epiphytes use adaptations such as leaves that form water tanks, spongy roots, and fleshy leaves and pseudobulbs to combat drought. Many different plant families have species that grow epiphytically, this diversity can add lots of interest to your trees.  Although most often found naturally in humid tropical forests, many epiphytes are hardy enough to tolerate the occasional winter frosts that Central Florida experiences.

Some reliable orchids to consider include showy Dendrobium nobile hybrids, Vanda hybrids with hardy V. tricolor in their lineage, and many Cattleya and Encyclias will grow well outside. (Cattleya maxima is one of the toughest.) Tender moth orchids (Phalenopsis) and florist-type Dendrobiums should be avoided.  Bromeliads to try are Tillandsia ionantha, T. cyanea, and native T. fasciculata and T. usneoides (Spanish moss).  Neoregelias are bromeliads with colorful foliage that are best viewed from above; plant them on low limbs or crotches.  Aechmea fasciata and A. blanchetiana are also reliable bromeliads.  Platycerium bifurcatum and P. superbum are the hardy staghorn fern species, and Asplenium nidus (bird’s nest fern) is another dramatic fern to try.  As your epiphyte collection grows, visit specialty nurseries or botanical garden sales to acquire more unusual plants.  Purchase small specimens to mount; the most common mistake beginners make when installing epiphytes is to use large, top-heavy plants that blow over and move in the wind.

Adding epiphytes to your landscape is a sure-fire way to introduce a quintessential tropical look.  Conservation-minded gardeners using native plants need not be left out – Florida is home to as many as 100 species of native epiphytes!  Your first step in incorporating epiphytes is to find a suitable host.  Trees are best, but wooden arbors, posts, and even rocks can be considered, just make sure that the site you choose is in bright partial sunlight and can be reached by a watering hose.  Oak trees or other trees with a furrowed bark are ideal for planting epiphytes on, but not all trees are good candidates.  Trees with a dense canopy like Magnolias and figs can be too dark, and trees with an exfoliating (peeling) bark like Eucalyptus and native gumbo limbo can be difficult for epiphytes to grab onto.

The best time to plant epiphytes is springtime, shortly before the start of the summer rains.  A word of caution – scaling a ladder leaning on a tree while holding a plant and tools can be hazardous!  Tie the top of your ladder to the tree, carry equipment in an apron or tool-belt, and have a helper hand you plants or hoist them up to you with a rope and a bucket.  Root balls that were in a pot can be trimmed to fit a crotch or limb, most of these roots will die anyway.  New roots will have to be generated to hold the plant to the bark. Although some gardeners put Sphagnum moss around the roots, this is generally not recommended unless the plant requires even moisture (such as a bird’s nest fern).

For an epiphytic plant to establish, their roots must securely grasp the bark.  Wiggling in the wind can break off new roots, so it is extremely important there is no movement where the roots contact the host.  Many materials can be used for securing new epiphytes.  Iron wire (used to tie together rebar in concrete construction) is a favorite – it is flexible, strong, and will degrade over time so as to not girdle the tree.  Form an “X” of wire over the base of the plant and either wrap around the limb or (on a large limb or trunk) attach the wire to nails or screws.  For epiphytes with thin rhizomes, use large cable staples to fasten the stems to the bark.  Hemp twine, ladies nylons, and even plastic strapping can be used effectively.  Note that copper wire can be toxic to bromeliads.  Also, never nail or screw anything into a palm trunk; palms cannot callous over wounds.  Wrap wire completely around their trunk instead.  In a year or two when your epiphytes are established, it is best to remove mounting materials.

While not maintenance free, epiphytes are easy to care for.  In the first year after planting, water weekly when there is no rain.  Epiphytes generally like to dry out between waterings.  Some orchids go dormant and shouldn’t be watered at all during this time.  “Tank-bromeliads” (ones that hold water in their leaf-cup) are fine as long as they are holding water, during prolonged dry spells squirt them occasionally with a hose.  After the first year supplemental watering may not be needed if your epiphytes have established a strong root system, water if you note wilting.  While epiphytes don’t need fertilizer, they will grow faster with a little nutritional help.  Fertilize during the warm months with a hose-end proportioner filled with properly diluted liquid fertilizer, or put a tablespoon of slow-release encapsulated fertilizer in a mesh bag and hang it where it will leach down over the root zone.  Bromeliads use the leaf litter in their cups for nutrition, a “dirty” bromeliad is a happy bromeliad! 

There are few books that overview epiphyte culture, but you will find books on specific plant groups.  For more information you can join plant societies (orchid, bromeliad, fern, cacti), attend botanical garden classes, speak with nursery professionals, and search online.  Enjoy your tropical landscape gems!