Why do plants grow on other plants?« Back to Questions List

Everywhere in warm climates trees are host to plants that grow attached to their trunks or sit on their limbs like birds on a roost. Among them are certain orchids, arums, cacti, ferns, mosses and algae – plants from unrelated groups that share the common feature of having no roots in the soil.




These are the epiphytes (means “on a plant”), often dubbed air plants because they get their water mainly from a humid atmosphere. Epiphytes are not parasites. They manufacture their own food and do not harm their hosts except by their sheer weight on the branches (which sometimes break), or by usurping the air and space.


Epiphytes have adopted their high living habit because it brings them into the sun. In the tropics perching plants are sometimes so abundant that it becomes difficult to distinguish a tree’s foliage.


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Epiphytes have no direct connection with the earth. A few species draw water in from streams by sending long aerial roots into the stream, then piping the water back up as much as 60 feet. Still they do not have access to water in the ground. Like all other plants, however, they do not need moisture. How they obtain it depends on the type of plant. Like desert plants, some epiphytes store water in thick leaves; many have waxy coatings on their leaves and stems, cutting down on water loss. Epiphytes can often absorb moisture directly from the atmosphere, using roots that protrude from the plant.



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