What Are Epiphytes?

Epiphytic Orchid

Rebeca Mello/Getty Images

Epiphytes describe a big group of unusual plants that need a little help from their friends. They appear in many plant families and are found mostly in tropical regions clinging to trees, rocks, and other natural structures. They are not parasitic and do not harm or deplete resources from their host plant. The host plant or surface provides support, enabling the epiphyte to attach and thrive.

Here's what you need to know about epiphytes and how this characterization could affect your plant care.

What Is an Epiphyte?

An epiphyte is any plant that grows upon another plant or object merely for physical support.

Common Characteristics of Epiphytes

Epiphytes are perennial plants with many producing flowers attractive to pollinators. Instead of rooting into ground soil, fertilized seeds develop roots or hair-like structures that attach to trees and other natural surfaces. Seeds rely on wind or water dispersal and may be carried by birds and insects. Many spread by producing pups and offshoots.

Some epiphytes attach with roots that wrap or nestle into rough tree bark. Others root into vegetative mats formed around mosses and lichens. This environmental debris creates a type of surface compost to anchor the roots.

Epiphytes take up moisture from rainfall, humid air, dew and host plant surfaces. Some develop special adaptations like cup formations or thick roots and leaves to absorb water. Nutrients are captured from environmental debris and through symbiotic relationships with various bacteria and fungi found in the air or on the host surface.

Examples of Epiphytes

Epiphytes are found across the globe in more than 80 plant families, most often as ferns, mosses, bromeliads, tillandsias, lichens, liverworts and orchids. Unique forms and flowers, are collected and highly sought after by enthusiasts. Tropical species are grown in greenhouses and make interesting houseplants. Many can be adapted to grow in pots when adequate conditions are met. Others, like mosses, lichens, and liverworts grow naturally in temperate zones and are more often used in the landscape in rock gardens, xeriscapes, and as ground covers.


Most epiphytic orchids grow on trees in tropical and subtropical climates across the globe and are sometimes called 'aerial' orchids They climb upward in low elevation forests and jungles and also on rocks and trees in the cloud canopy of high mountainous regions. Epiphytes makes up more than half the orchid genus with close to 14-thousand species. Most bloom annually with wide variations in color and form. Thick roots have an outer covering called velamen that swells to capture and hold moisture and nutrients. Leaves are often thick and waxy, although some develop no foliage at all. Phalaenopsis is a popular epiphytic orchid.


Bromeliads thrive in deserts, mountains and forests in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and West Africa and are adapted to subtropical regions of the United States. More than 3000 species of bromeliads are known with the most recognizable the terrestrial pineapple. All bromeliads develop as bracts and epiphytes are found singly or growing in colonies, that increase by producing pups. Each flowers only once for three to six months, then produces new young plants. Flowers have a unique appearance called an influorescense, made up of multiple flower buds on a center stalk. Leaf types vary in size and shape and can be smooth or spiny. The  urn plant or silver vase plant, Aechmea fasciata, is a popular epiphytic bromeliad.


Often called the "air plant", tillandsias belong to the Bromeliacaea family and are native to humid rainforests. Some of the 600 species also thrive among rocks or on cliffs, in deserts, and even on cacti. Tillandsia spread by pollination and pups, often forming colonies. They take many years to bloom, after which offshoots appear and the parent plant dies back. Sky Plant, Tillandsia ionantha is commonly grown as a houseplant.

Ferns, Mosses, Lichens and Liverworts

Native to tropical and subtropical jungles and rainforests, these epiphytes also grow naturally around the world in temperate zones. Ferns, mosses, lichens and liverworts develop in small patches or groupings along tree trunks and branches and on rock faces. While ferns take up moisture and nutrients through a root system, mosses, lichen and liverworts are non-vascular. Instead of roots, they photosynthesize through tiny hair-like structures dependent on surface moisture. They reproduce with spores and do not flower although some mosses produce a fluorescence (luminescence). A lichen is not a true plant as it is a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae (or occasionally cyanobacteria). A number of ferns make attractive houseplants: Rabbit's-foot fern, Davallia denticulata, and Stag fern,Platycerium, are two that grow well in pots. Mosses, lichen and liverworts can thrive in terrariums but are less frequent in houseplant collections.

Caring for Epiphytes

From the easiest tillandsia to the fussiest orchid, epiphytes run the gamut in terms of care, but when grown as houseplants a few general guidelines apply. Filtered or indirect light works best in an environment with plenty of moisture. A loose potting medium supplies sufficient circulation for roots that take nutrients from air. Nutrient boosts with a consistent fertilizing schedule support healthy growth and blooming.

Providing adequate growing conditions is key to successfully growing epiphytes. Find out everything you can about your plant's native habitat and try to recreate those conditions in your home.

  • What are epiphytes and parasites?

    Parasitic plants take nutrients away from their host They deplete nourishment and moisture and can cause harm, even killing the host. Epiphytes cling to host plants and other surfaces, like rock faces, but have special adaptations to take moisture and nutrients from the air, leaving the host unharmed.

  • Is an orchid a epiphyte?

    Most, but not all, orchids are epiphytes. The Phalaenopsis is the most well-known but joins almost 14,000 other epiphytes in the orchid family.

  • What trees do epiphytes grow on?

    The majority grow on many species of trees found in tropical rainforests. Some can be mounted or adapted to grow on other types of trees or as potted plants.

  • Is a hemiphyte an epiphyte?

    Hemi stands for "part" and that means hemiphytes can be part epiphyte. They start with roots in the ground but grow up on trees and surfaces with some becoming completely epiphytic.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Epiphytes. IFAS Gardening Solutions. University of Florida.