Everyone likes something low maintenance right? In today’s modern world, we seem to be over scheduled and over committed, and as a result, our plant friends seem to take somewhat of a sideline. So what could be more low maintenance than a plant that basically lives on air?
An Epiphyte, is a plant that lives on the nutrients it gathers from the air and rain, and lives on another tree without taking any nutrients from that plant, unlike a parasite. Epiphytes or air plants as they are more commonly known, live on other plants/trees for physical support only, and to position themselves where there is less competition for light, but they do not draw negatively from the host. They are generally found in moist tropical areas where they are able to grow above ground in a dense shaded rain forest environment accessing moisture, sunlight and resourcefully exploiting the nutrients available from fallen leaves and other organic debris.
Epiphytes are mostly angiosperms, or flowering plants and make fantastic houseplants as they do not require large quantities of soil or water. The most popular varieties of epiphytes used as houseplants are Orchids, Ferns and Bromeliads. Other epiphytes include various Mosses and Algaes.
Epiphytic plants contribute to our rich ecosystem and provide a canopy and shelter. But not all plants in this group are tree epiphytes. Plants, such as mosses, are epiphytic but may be seen growing on rocks instead or the sides of houses and other inorganic surfaces. Instead of using the tree branches for physical support, they instead use the rock body, or other structure to position themselves where they have access to optimal light and moisture requirements. Water is generally gathered from the rain or water vapour in the air, and nutrients are sourced from debris from the host.
Bromeliad leaves typically arranged in a tightly overlapping spiral at their base to form a cup like structure whereby water gathers. The cup also is able to capture debris which then decomposes and goes on to provide the plant with its required nutrients. The central cup can also be an excellent habitat for small creatures. In fact many animals drink from the Bromeliad and some even breed or live in the pool, such as dart frogs. When Bromeliad varieties are epiphytes they use their roots primarily as anchors. The roots grasp the structure (tree/branch/mount) and fasten the plant securely. The trichomes (scale like structures on their leaves) take in water from the air.
Many Orchids varieties are epiphytes, and by having the ability to grow without any soil, the orchid is able to grow in places with little competition for light, moisture and the compost from other plants in order to source it’s own nutrients. In nature, the roots of the orchids are often covered with mosses or ferns which also favour the same environments, so the orchids roots rarely get an opportunity to dry out. They also add to the humidity in the air of the ennvironment which the orchids love.
When housing an orchid in your home, it is important to emulate these conditions as closely as possible. Cover the roots with some moss, and position your orchid somewhere it will have access to filtered natural light, and moist air, like your bathroom.
Live in a shoe box with limited space? Air plants will work for you too! Try a Tillandsia in a hanging votive, or some Old Man’s Beard (Spanish Moss).