Get It Growing: The epiphytes among us

Don’t look now, but you may be harboring an epiphyte amongst your houseplants. No cause for panic; that’s a good thing!

By definition, epiphytes are plants that, in nature, grow on other plants but are not parasitic, i.e., they don’t hurt or draw nourishment from the host plant. They are plants that in the right conditions, can get everything they need to survive, including sun, air, water and nutrition without the benefit of soil.

A surprising number of common houseplants are epiphytes. For instance, many orchids, ferns and bromeliads are epiphytes. Even Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera buckleyi) is an epiphyte native to the rain forests of Brazil.

One may ask, “If they grow by attaching themselves to branches in nature, why do so many make wonderful houseplants?” The answer has a lot to do with the individual nature of their growth.

Holo-epiphytes are plants that, like many orchid species and staghorn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum) spend their whole lives up in the air.

Hemi-epiphytes can, at some point, be attached to the ground. The Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) is a hemi-epiphyte that starts as a terrestrial plant and as it grows up a tree, breaks contact with the ground and becomes an epiphyte.

In contrast, the fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) will start life in the top of a tree and send aggressive roots down to the ground.

As a result, hemi-epiphytes can be perfectly happy in well-draining light soil while holo-epiphytes, because they never root in nature, take a little more specialized care.

How to plant epiphytes

If an epiphytic house plant is purchased in a pot with a growing medium, it can most likely thrive as a potted houseplant. The substrate or growing media is the most important consideration.

Use a chunky soil-less and well-draining potting mix (adding in some orchid mix, perlite, or bark is a good way to add to the chunk).

If transplanting to a new pot, the new container should not be more than one inch larger than the original pot. Using terra cotta or orchid type pots instead of plastic will help avoid root rot. Firm the plant into the substrate well so it is settled and secure.

Keep the plants moist without sitting in water. Although most are considered tropical plants, the roots will quickly succumb to root rot if they are planted in heavy soil and over-watered. They do appreciate humidity, so grouping plants on and around a pebble tray with water, helps keep the humidity high (this is beneficial to all types of houseplants).

Because these exotic looking plants usually grow in a tree and originate from warm climates, dappled bright light and a warm home is optimum but they adapt to a range of conditions. There are exceptions, so googling specific care instructions is always advised.

In nature, epiphytes would get their nutrients from decaying matter. As a houseplant, they can be fertilized during their growing season with liquid houseplant fertilizer diluted to half strength.

How to mount epiphytes

For the adventurous, there are numerous ways to grow epiphytes without soil, but every species is different. Again, it is helpful to Google the specific requirements of your selected variety before jumping in with both green thumbs.

The general idea is to mount or attach the plant to a supportive base to replace the tree or other plant that they would normally grow on. Options may include a container filled with bark or lava rock (think hanging baskets or shallow bowls with drainage), securing the plant to deadwood or cork, or anchoring it to a sphagnum moss-covered object.

Most epiphytes will not grow on a bare base so moss is essential. Avoid peat moss unless you’re growing a species that prefers acidic conditions. Instead, you can choose sphagnum moss which has a neutral pH.

If using wood, soak it for at least 24 hours to leach out any salts that it may contain or be coated with. Rinse the wood well and allow it to dry.

Select a plant that has a small crown of foliage with a large stem for attachment, if possible. The roots of a top-heavy plant won’t initially be able to support its weight.

Any epiphyte you mount will need a sturdy anchoring material. Suitable binding includes jute, twine, fishing line, silicone glue, bonsai wire, or rope.

To mount, wrap the roots of the plant in sphagnum moss and then securely anchor the plant by the stem(s) to a base using twine, fishing line, bonsai wire, or similar. Don’t scrimp, bind it tight; the binding materials can be concealed by gluing or tucking moss around the mount.

Epiphytes mounted without soil often do best in a green house or terrarium because they can be difficult to water depending on their location. Frequent misting in place or saturating the growing base in a sink and allowing it to drain are recommended.

By the numbers

The number of epiphytes is staggering. There are more than 30,000 different species across many families of plants, and many may make great house plants. See the sidebar for more varieties not mentioned in this article.

A short list of websites that have good information about a few specific species include: Clemson Cooperative Extension ( search “bromeliads,” University of Kentucky ( search “ferns,” University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin Horticulture Division of Extension ( search “holiday cactus.”

An excellent commercial site for people interested in mounting plants is Pistils Nursery out of Portland, Oregon ( They have mounting supplies and kits for Kokedama, a Japanese method of planting in moss balls.

Susan Kalmar is a WSU Clallam County Master Gardener with a keen interest in houseplants.

Epiphyte availability

Here are some epiphytes that are usually available in grocery stores and garden centers:

The Flamingo flower (Anthurium species) have sturdy deep green heart-shaped foliage and the striking red spathes (bloom) that make impressive houseplants, which will bloom year-round.

The Bird’s-nest fern (Asplenium nidus) is grown in pots, but in their native habitat, you’ll find them high up in the crooks of trees.

Arrowhead plant (Syngonium podophyllum and other species) can add lovely foliage color.

Pothos or Devil’s Ivy (Epipremnum aureum and others) are almost impossible to kill except by over-watering.

Philodendron spp. come in a myriad of shapes and sizes.

A few great plants that may be harder to find are:

Orchid cactus (Epiphyllum spp.) is exotic looking and fairly easy to grow.

Fern leaf cactus, aka fern leaf orchid cactus (Selenicereus chrysocardium) has dramatic, wing-like “leaves,” which are actually stems.

The Blue Star fern (Phlebodium aureum) has a blue-green foliage that reaches out like fingers.