The Tropical Garden, Fall 2015

By Marilyn Griffiths

Epiphytes can be seen almost everywhere in South Florida. Clinging to palms, hanging from oaks or nested in the crotch of any large tree, the epiphytic plant is a marvel of natural engineering.

An epiphyte is a plant that uses another plant for mechanical support but not for nutrients. There are approximately 25,000 species of vascular (having specialized cells for conducting nutrients) epiphytes. Orchids, ferns, bromeliads and aroids make up a large majority of the epiphytes we see growing in our South Florida landscapes. Many are propagated by birds eating and dispersing the fruit on branches. Others have fine hairs attached to their seeds, which get caught by the wind and find the perfect crevice in a tree’s bark to germinate and thrive.

Many epiphytes are used by animal populations, mostly insects. Ants receive nutrients from some, while simultaneously protecting them from other insects. The “vases” of bromeliads can hold water, providing a home and food source for many small insects and amphibians.

At Fairchild, epiphytes have been an unofficial part of our collections for many decades. Native ferns, bromeliads and orchids have found homes in our stately old oaks. In recent years, we’ve developed a system to track epiphytes that have been mounted on trees and palms. It is possible now to cross-reference the epiphyte with the tree it was mounted on. Our database has 380 recorded epiphytes at this writing.

In 2012, Fairchild received the American Orchid Society’s collection of orchids. This was an incredible addition to our epiphyte collection. Many of these orchids can be seen mounted on trees in the Richard H. Simons Rainforest and set out for temporary display as they flower.

A recent horticulture intern made it her project to obtain and mount native Florida epiphytes in the large oak near the Phillips-Atwater Gatehouse. There are 37 plants there, including 27 species in 11 genera and five families. Look closely, as some of the smaller plants are nestled among our native resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides var. michauxiana).

The Tropical Plant Conservatory is also a hotspot for epiphytes, since the regular irrigation and humidity provide an ideal environment for many types. The cork bark tree in the lower room is filled with plants large and small, from huge bird’s nest anthuriums to tiny-flowered orchids.

Virtually every humid tropical rainforest contains epiphytes, which contribute to the varied and complex biome of the tropics. Fairchild is fortunate to have the climate to grow these special plants, providing our visitors with a glimpse into the rainforests of the world.