EPIPHYTIC PLANTS: What are they, Types and Examples

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Plants usually develop directly on the ground, but this is not the case of epiphytic plants, whose development does not require the soil, but rather grows on the trunks of trees to achieve the best position to receive sunlight. This is the case of such well-known plants as orchids and bromeliads.

In this Green Ecologist article we will find out more about the Epiphytic plants: what are they, their types and some examples.

What are epiphytic plants: definition

The word epiphyte comes from the Greek ‘epi’ (envelope) and ‘phyton’ (vegetable), that is, it refers to a plant that grows on another plant using it as a support. For this reason, epiphytic plants sometimes seem to be plants that they live in the air, when in fact they are growing on a support.

Epiphytic plants do not have any physiological relationship with the trees on which they develop, but their roots only serve to cling to branches and trunks. It is said, then, that the relationship of the epiphytic plant with its support is commensalism (Benefit for the epiphyte, while the tree or vegetable supports neither benefits nor harms). However, recent studies have shown that epiphytes can cause damage to the host on certain occasions, such as avoiding photosynthesis, suffocating it or causing its branches to break due to weight.

The support tree is a good habitat for epiphytes, because it is exposed to significant variations in humidity and temperature due to direct exposure to the sun and wind. For this reason, epiphytic plants have developed certain physiological and morphological characteristics that allow them to avoid or reduce water loss (thanks to thick cuticles) and to obtain nutrients from the air and those released by leaf litter and tree debris. .

Difference between epiphytic plants and parasitic plants

Parasitic plants, like epiphytes, develop on a plant, but unlike epiphytes, parasites feed on the nutritive substances of the host plant, causing serious damage. Currently, approximately 4,000 species of parasitic plants are known and have a modified root, called haustorium, which penetrates the xylem or phloem of the host.

Therefore, the difference is that epiphytic plants do not cause damage to the host, while parasites yes.

Learn more about Parasitic Plants: characteristics, types and examples with this other post from Green Ecologist.

Difference between epiphytic and climbing plants

Both epiphytic and climbing plants use a host, however the difference between the two is that, on the one hand, epiphytic plants have an aerial way of living, while, on the other hand, climbing plants originate from the ground and when they begin to grow they are located in a tree to absorb sunlight and be away from predators and excessive soil moisture.

Here we show you more about the Names of flowering climbing plants, so that you know several species.

Types of epiphytic plants and examples of species

It is estimated that there are currently around 25,000 species of plants with this way of life. The epiphytic life form appeared several times throughout evolution and is found both in tropical spermatophytes (stem and seed plants) and Ericaceae, Moraceae, Piperaceae, Melastomataceae or Gesneraceas and temperate seedless plants such as lichens, mosses, and liverworts. But nevertheless, the best known epiphytic plants and common are:


The orchid family it is the most numerous in terms of number of epiphytic species, with more than 20 genera of tropical epiphytic plants. The different species of orchids stand out for their beauty and for their great diversity of floral shapes. This fact, together with their low nutrient and water requirements, make them one of the most cultivated gardening plants in the world. In addition, they stand out for their complex pollination systems. Some epiphytic species of this family are:

  • Bulbophyllum minutissimum
  • Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis
  • Vanilla planifolia
  • Prosthechea baculus
  • Epidendrum anceps
  • Phalaenopsis amabilis

Here we discover how to grow orchids in trees.


Bromeliads include more than 3,000 tropical species, most of them epiphytes and some of the best known are the air carnations. Its leaves develop in a rosette and in an imbricate manner, which facilitates the accumulation of water. Bromeliads have secondary compounds that prevent the proliferation of the mosquito Aedes aegypti, which is an important transmitter of viruses such as zyka or dengue, and the water that accumulates in its leaves creates a microhabitat with nutrients that insects, amphibians and native birds feed on. Some epiphytic species are:

  • Tillandsia usneoides
  • Tillandsia abdita
  • Tillandsia acuminata
  • Tillandsia multicaulis
  • Aechmea abbreviata
  • Aechmea allenii
  • Aechmea aquilega


Ferns are vascular seedless plants with large, usually pinnate leaves and circinate prefoliation. They are very moisture-dependent plants, which is why a great variety grows in tropical climates, many of which are epiphytes. Some epiphytic fern species are:

  • Platycerium bifurcatum
  • Trichomanes galeoti
  • Phlebodium pseudoaureum
  • Elaphoglossum vestitum


Some epiphytic mosses can be found on twisted trunks, especially on oak bark. Mosses are undemanding plants and are part of the colonizing vegetation, fulfilling important functions such as protecting the soil from cooling, preserving and increasing its porosity and permeability, and helping to enrich the topsoil. Some epiphytic mosses are:

  • Syntrichia amphidiacea
  • Leskea angustata
  • Syntrichia fragilis
  • Syntrichia pagorum
  • Fabronia ciliaris


Lichens are symbiotic associations between an alga and a mushroom, where the fungus provides protection and the algae photosynthesis. Lichens usually grow as epiphytic plants on the bark of many trees. The following species stand out:

  • Usnea articulata
  • Aextoxicon punctatum
  • Peumus boldus
  • Aristotelia chilensis

In the image below you can see mosses and ferns, which are epiphytic plants, living in a tree.

Is there a symbiosis between the epiphytic plant and the carrier?

Epiphytic plants accumulate large amounts of dust, soil or water between their roots, forming on the base of the carrier plant a layer of biomass that the epiphyte can use as food. At the same time, some carrier species develop special roots with which they manage to use part of this biomass as a food supplement. So it can also be said that the carrier plant can obtain certain kinds of benefits.

From the point of view of the benefits for the organizations involved, this relationship can be considered as a type of commensalism-type symbiosis. However, it is not a symbiosis in the strict sense, since there is no close relationship between the two organisms, as occurs for example in a lichen.

Learn more about What is symbiosis with examples, in this other article.

If you want to read more articles similar to Epiphytic plants: what are they, types and examples, we recommend that you enter our Biology category.

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