epiphytes

How to Grow and Care for Epiphytes

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Are you curious about how to grow and care for epiphytes? In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know.

But first, what exactly is an epiphyte?

The word epiphyte comes from the Greek language, with “epi” meaning “upon”, and ”phyton” meaning “plant.” 

In other words, epiphytes are plants that grow on top of, or upon other plants. For example, in the topical parts of our world, epiphytes can be seen growing all over, on rocks, trees, and vines. Their ability to grow on relatively ‘nothing’, and to get their nutrients from the air is the reason for their nickname, “air plants”. 

But epiphytes are no longer just growing in rainforests. They have now become popular houseplants because of their low water and soil requirements, minimal maintenance, and absolutely intriguing look. If you’ve got questions about epiphytes, then we have answers. 

Keep on reading to get the low down on everything related to epiphytes. 

Plant Facts

Scientific nameVaries
Common namesVaries
FamilyVaries 
Plant TypeHouseplant 
Height and WidthVaries 
OriginGlobal distribution
Flower colorsVaries
Foliage colorVaries
Sun ExposureFull Sun (in most cases) 
Soil Type & pHNeutral soil or substrate (in most cases)
Special featuresGreat for containers

How to Grow Epiphytes

Epiphytes make great houseplants. Even though they are plants that grow on other plants, their versatility makes them able to be grown in all different types of containers. They even do well in hanging containers (especially the varieties of epiphytes that boast long, flowing foliage). 

Epiphytes are popular houseplants because many of them are low maintenance. In other words, successfully growing an epiphyte requires very little. Afterall, they are famous for their ability to grow on seemingly nothing out in the wild. 

Propagation

When it comes to epiphytes in general, there are many different ways to propagate and increase the number of plants in your collection. They each have a unique reproduction process. Therefore, propagating epiphytic plants first begins with recognizing what type of epiphytic plant you are growing, and then choosing the proper propagation method for that species. 

Epiphytic Seed Propagation

Some epiphytic plants can be propagated from seed. This is of course only possible if the epiphyte you are wanting to propagate produces seeds. 

If you are able to collect seeds from your epiphyte, sow them into their own container. We don’t recommend burying them very deep into the soil at all. One of our favorite containers for germinating new seeds are egg crates. 

Keep the growing medium you are using relatively moist, and in a location that remains warm, and receives bright, indirect sunlight. To speed up the process, you may consider using a germination mat to maintain a warm temperature. 

The time of germination will depend on the species. But in general, be very, very patient. Propagating from seeds is by far the slowest method of propagation. 

Rhipsalis baccifera

Epiphytic Propagation Using Cuttings

Epiphytic cacti can be propagated using cuttings. What’s cool about propagating from cuttings is that the new plant that eventually grows will develop to be exactly like the parent plant (you do not get that kind of reliability by propagating with seeds). This is especially helpful for varieties of cacti that you adore. Plus, they will mature, flower and fruit much faster than if they were grown from seed.

Cuttings can be taken at any time of the year. However, for the best results, the most reliable time to take cuttings is around springtime. Whatever the time of year, make sure to use a clean knife or pruning shears to avoid spreading disease. 

After you have taken the cutting, allow it to harden off for a couple of weeks. Afterward, plant the cutting into a new container filled with a reliable cactus mixture. Keep the soil relatively moist, but not oversaturated, and position the cutting in an area where it can receive the proper sunlight depending on the species. 

Epiphytic Propagation With Pups

No, we are not talking about dogs here. Some types of epiphytes create offsets called pups. 

Bromeliads are the classic example of an epiphytic plant that reproduces using pups. The parent plants of bromeliads will begin to produce pups. With time, some pups begin to grow in clusters. You then can remove these pups in order to create more plants.

When you transplant a pup from the parent plant, ideally they should be ⅓ the size of the parent. You can either use a knife to cut away the pup, or simply pull it apart with your hands. It shouldn’t be too difficult. After removing the pup, check to make sure the parent plant’s roots system is still intact. 

Afterwards, let the broken or cut end of the pup harden off for a week or two. When it’s ready, prepare moist substrate, and mount the pup so that it can stand upright and begin to develop its own roots. Keep the freshly transplanted pup in medium, indirect sunlight and care for it like normal.

You can also learn more about bromeliad care on our blog.

Soil

Unlike other plants, epiphytes do not rely on soil to grow their roots. Instead, they collect the nutrients they need to grow from moisture and debris particles in the air around them. But they do require something to mount themselves on. 

When thinking about growing epiphytes, it’s important to consider the surface they will attach themselves to. Some epiphytes prefer rocks, while others prefer something woody. When you choose the type of epiphyte you want to grow, it’ll require just a little research to choose the best surface. 

In general, however, epiphytes can be grown with pieces of wood or bark, rocks or gravel, cactus potting mix, or sphagnum moss. 

Pruning

Most epiphytes do not require routine pruning. Many of them, especially the tillandsia air plants, are so tiny that they never put on enough growth to need cutting. However, there are some types of epiphytic ferns and cacti that you may consider pruning. 

For epiphytic ferns, you may consider pruning in order to control the shape and size of the plant. This is especially helpful for confined spaces. For epiphytic cacti, pruning may be especially helpful during processes like propagation. 

In all cases, pruning your epiphytes may also become necessary to remove dead or dying foliage. This will especially be important if you suspect your epiphyte to be struggling with some sort of fungal or bacterial plant disease. 

Repotting and Transplanting

When it comes to small epiphytes like bromeliads and air plants, very little repotting or transplanting will be necessary. They tend to grow slowly and are often content in their original container. 

However, for large epiphyte species, like ferns, orchids, or cacti, repotting may be necessary as the plant grows. Particularly if you are fertilizing the plant because there may come a time when they outgrow the container they started in. 

Tillandsia plants

How to Care for Epiphytes

Caring for epiphytes depends on the specific type of epiphyte you have chosen to grow. They each have unique characteristics and ideal living conditions. That might sound vague and not very helpful. But have no fear, in general, caring for epiphytes is relatively low maintenance (except for some epiphytic orchid species)! 

Plus, there are tons of resources out there to guide you on the specifics once you have decided what type of epiphytic plant you would like to grow. 

Water

In nature, epiphytes are great at doing a lot when they receive very little. This much is true for their water intake, which is why many epiphytes are famous for their low maintenance.

The amount of water you give your epiphyte will depend on if it’s an epiphytic fern, cactus, orchid, or air plant. In most cases though, moist soil or substrate is better than completely dry (however, many epiphytes are impressively drought resistant).  

Sunlight

The amount of sunlight you expose your epiphyte to will depend on the type of plant. 

Epiphytes grow all over the world and in all sorts of different environments. Some epiphytic plants love sunlight. While others do best in shadier conditions.

If your epiphyte likes sun, we recommend positioning them southeast or west-facing window sills. If your epiphyte is happier in shady places, make sure to locate them in areas where they can be sheltered from direct sunlight. 

Temperature and Humidity

Generally speaking, epiphytes like warmer weather over colder weather. Their ideal range is between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If you live in an area that gets warm, tropical-like weather, then your epiphytes will be in heaven. You can even grow them outdoors in places like Florida. 

On the other hand, if you live somewhere that gets cold, you will need to make sure your epiphytes stay warm and avoid frost and cold drafts. For example, if your epiphytes are grown outside, you will need to bring them indoors during the winter.

When it comes to humidity, the recommendation is less straightforward. Some epiphytes require a very humid growing environment, while others do fine in less humid environments. So in general, in regard to humidity, it’s best to pick an epiphyte that you know will be happy with the natural humidity level of where you live. 

Fertilizer

What you feed your epiphytes will depend on the type of plant you are growing. Generally speaking, when it comes to small bromeliads and tillandsia plants, very little fertilizing is necessary. 

It’s mostly the epiphytic orchids, cacti, and ferns that you may want to fertilize, especially if you are trying to encourage vigorous growth and timely blooming. In most cases, you can supplement your plants with low doses of all-purpose liquid fertilizer. Most of the time, we dilute the recommended dosage of fertilizer. For orchids, one pro tip is to feed them with fish emulsion fertilizer. 

Fertilizing epiphytes normally is best done during the growing months of the year. Avoid fertilizing your epiphytes during the colder, winter months. 

Pest and Diseases

Epiphytes are not commonly pestered by insects. Nor are they notorious for being overly sensitive and susceptible to an onslaught of plant diseases. But they do sometimes run into simple problems. 

Root rot is a big one. This occurs when your epiphyte is kept too wet. This could be due to overwatering, or poor drainage. If caught early enough, your epiphyte can survive root rot.  Check your container for adequate drainage, and take a step back from watering for a while. 

In regard to epiphytic ferns, curled, shriveled and yellow foliage is often a tell-tale sign of underwatering or not enough humidity. If you need to increase the humidity, you can spritz your ferns with a spray bottle.  

Common Varieties and Cultivars

There are thousands of different types of epiphytes you can grow as houseplants, but here are some of the most popular choices. 

Blue Star Fern (Phlebodium aureum)

This variety of epiphytic fern is native to tropical rainforest environments. This means that they enjoy warmer temperatures. Their foliage boasts a blue-green hue, hence the name, and can sometimes even be speckled with silver and gray. 

The Blue Star Fern makes for a reliable house plant because it can grow in a variety of sunlight conditions, and requires slightly less humidity than other epiphytic ferns. Plus, it only tends to grow to about 2 feet tall, making it ideal for smaller spaces. 

Sweet Sugar Orchid (Oncidium oncidesa)

The Sweet Sugar Orchid is considered to be one of the dancing lady orchid varieties. The reason being that if you look closely, the labellum of the orchis resembles a skirt, the two sepals on each side are her arms, and the third sepal on top is her head. When the orchid really takes off, and blooms all along its slender stems (sometimes up to 15 blooms), it looks like a full array of dancers. 

This orchid needs to be watered once a week, and sometimes more if you notice the substrate to be drying out more quickly. Because these orchids like warmer temperatures, they should never be kept in an area that can get lower than 50 degrees fahrenheit. Their ideal temperature  range is from 60 degrees in the winter, and 75 degrees in the summer. 

Mistletoe Cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera)

The Mistletoe Cactus is an interesting cactus with slender chain-like branches that requires very little and is easy to grow. For that reason, we think the Mistletoe Cactus is the perfect epiphytic cactus for beginners. It enjoys warm and humid environments largely because it’s native to countries like Mexico and Brazil. This cactus would absolutely love living in Florida. 

Unlike other varieties, the Mistletoe Cactus requires shade and partial sun. This makes it the ideal houseplant for those shadier, hard to reach locations in your home. It can be potted in a container with a reliable store-bought cactus mix, or mounted on bark or some other woody substrate like orchids. 

Sky Plant (Tillandsia ionantha)

The Tillandsia ionantha is one of the most popular air-plant species. The Sky Plant is known for being low-maintenance and adaptable, making it an ideal houseplant. For that reason alone, they are perfect for a beginner who is just getting into air-plant bromeliads. 

Sky Plants start out tiny. As they mature, their colors deepen, their foliage stretches and they take on a fun, wavy aesthetic. When the Sky plant blooms, it boasts small but attractive white or yellow flowers with purple shoots. 

Conclusion

Epiphytes are awesome plants! The fact that they can grow from relatively ‘nothing’, and still produce beautiful flowers and interesting foliage is super impressive. We just love how easy they are to take care of in the home. 

Whether you have a bunch of hanging containers, terracotta pots, or a glass terrarium just doesn’t matter. You can grow epiphytes in practically anything. 

Just provide them with the most ideal living conditions (depending on the species), sit back and watch them develop. Once you’ve got one successfully growing, we pretty much guarantee you will want more. They are that great! 

Up next: How to take care of ferns

References

References: 

University of Florida: Epiphytes 

https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/ornamentals/epiphytes.html

California Institute of Technology: Epiphytes – the Plants of the Rainforest

http://www.srl.caltech.edu/personnel/krubal/rainforest/Edit560s6/www/plants/epiphytes.html 

University of California: Epiphytes

https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=38920

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