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Explore the wide and wonderful world of epiphytes

The name “terrestrial epiphytes” doesn’t roll off the tongue, but if you’ve spent any time on Pinterest or home design blogs, you’ve no doubt seen variations of epiphytic plants making the rounds.

Found in tropical and temperate regions of the world, epiphytes often live on other plants, grabbing nutrients from the air, rain or organic debris from their accommodating hosts. This peaceful co-existence (epiphytes aren’t parasitic and do not harm their hosts) can also be extended to your home with some research on indoor-friendly options.

While epiphytes aren’t indestructible, they are relatively low-maintenance, provided you do a little homework upfront about their preferred environment and care. From terrariums to sea urchin shells to old logs, these soil-less plants can turn even the blackest of thumbs into a proud Plant Parent.

Tillandsia

Tillandsia ionantha on a tree branch

Arguably the most popular for growing indoors, there are dozens of variations on Tillandsia ionantha. They can be grown in terrariums, seashells, crystals or any kind of crevice. Just be sure to give them bright, indirect light (yes, your office’s fluorescent lights will actually work!) and a good misting twice a week.

Certain ferns

Staghorn Fern growing on a tree

Who says houseplants are high-maintenance? Both the bird’s nest and staghorn fern can be grown with or without soil, with the latter growing as much as three feet wide. These ferns love humidity, natch, but don’t like sitting in water — think moist, not soggy.

Spanish moss

Bald cypress tree with Spanish moss on the Wacissa River, Florida

Is there anything more iconic to the American South than Spanish moss? This folklore-rich epiphyte, referred to as “Grandpa’s beard” in French Polynesia, is happiest living harmoniously on live oak and bald cypress trees. (With proper misting and light, it can also grow indoors.) Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t parasitic, though if it grows too thick it can prevent the tree’s leaves from getting enough sunlight, thereby stunting growth.

Certain orchids

Epiphytic orchid grows on tree in Singapore garden

There are an incredible 22,000 species of orchids in this world, and around 70% of them are epiphytic. Popular orchids that require no soil are the Ansellia africana and Mystacidium capense. Their roots’ large surface area allows them to quickly suck in water and nutrients, while extra water is stored in their secondary stems for unexpected droughts.

Ball moss

Ball moss growing on a tree

Tillandsia recurvata (aka ball moss) grows on its tree host. (Photo: Kohlnf [CC by SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

Related to Spanish moss, ball moss also likes growing on trees such as the southern live oak. Ball mass requires high humidity and little airflow. The tangled sphere is no freeloader though; it photosynthesizes its own food, collects water from its leaves, and can grow as big as a soccer ball.

Certain cacti

A Christmas cactus in full bloom

When you think of cacti’s preferred environment, an arid landscape with plenty of sand and sun probably comes to mind. But there are actually 19 species of epiphytic plants in the cacti family, and they happen to love living in trees in rainforests, absorbing light through their elongated leaves. Check out Schlumbergera genus, whose common name often depends on when it flowers. (In the Northern Hemisphere, we call it Christmas cactus; in Brazil, it’s the May flower.)

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