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This Garden Vocabulary series seeks to introduce and explain to you — and in many cases, myself — words and terms associated with gardening. Please let me know if  there are any terms you would like me to explore. You can leave your ideas in the comments section and we can learn together!


An epiphyte is a plant that grows upon another plant (such as a tree) non-parasitically or sometimes upon some other object (such as a building or a telegraph wire), derives its moisture and nutrients from the air and rain and sometimes from debris accumulating around it. Epiphytes are usually found in the temperate zone (e.g., many mosses, liverworts, lichens and algae) or in the tropics (e.g., many ferns, cacti, orchids, and bromeliads).

Read the entire article on Wikipedia, Epiphyte

Growing up in Ohio, my biggest experience with epiphytes was lichen, molds and fungus. Running around the wood lots and fence rows that surrounded the various farms, you would often come across all sorts. Moving to California, though, exposed me to a host of tropical epiphytes I had never seen before. Visiting various garden, both public and private, I encountered staghorn ferns, orchids, bromeliads and more.

For me, epiphytes always look as if they are part of the structure that supports them, as then blend in almost seamlessly, but instead they gain their water and nutrients from the air, not roots placed in soil. Those of from the American South will be familiar with an epiphyte in the form of Spanish Moss which hangs form many trees and seems almost a visible icon for southern life. Others may only be aware if epiphytes in the form of the ubiquitous “air plants” that one sees at nearly any community art show. Here in California, you typically see them nestled into pieces of driftwood or small rocks and declared as “care free house plants.”

Further reading on Epiphyte:


Previously on Garden Vocabulary: