Looking after Epiphytic Plants

An Epiphyte is a plant that grows, not in soil or water, but on another plant. An Epiphyte is not the same as a Parasite, such as Mistletoe, which feeds on, and may even kill, its host. An Epiphyte gets its food from rotted organic matter that collects round its base, and a few Epiphytes even grow on rocks. Epiphytic house plants include many Bromeliads, Ferns, Cacti and Orchids.



In the tropics, Epiphytes often grow high up on tree branches, to reach the light that doesn’t penetrate to the jungle floor below. However, Epiphytes are usually protected from direct sunlight by the leaves of their host plant. In the home, provide bright but filtered or dappled light for most Epiphytes, such as a spot near a bright window or a north-facing sill.

Some Epiphytes, including Forest Cacti, benefit from a spell outdoors in summer in a sheltered, lightly shaded spot. This ripens their growth, and encourages flowers to form. In winter, when natural light levels are low, many Epiphytes like being moved closer to the light. A south-or west-facing window is ideal. Epiphytic Orchids need plenty of light – at least 10 hours a day— all year round, so in winter you may have to provide artificial lighting.



Many Epiphytes have tiny root systems, more for anchorage than for feeding, so they need small pots in relation to their leafy growth. Airplants need no pot at all, and are displayed attached to shells, pebbles or bits of bark! Epiphytes displayed growing on a tree branch, much as they do in nature, have their roots wrapped in moss alone. Many Epiphytic Orchids have aerial roots, which help them cling to their host, but these can be trained into pots.

Most Epiphytes need an open, acid, free draining and humus-rich potting mixture — waterlogging is a main cause of death among Epiphytes. Special Orchid potting mixture is made of osmunda fibre, the processed roots of the Osmunda Fern, mixed with sphagnum moss, coarse peat, and a little chopped bracken,crushed brick, sand and/or charcoal.

For Bromeliads, Forest Cacti and Epiphytic Ferns, use a mixture of equal parts potting mixture and leafmould, with a few pieces of charcoal added.


Many Epiphytes, including Bromeliads, have funnel-shaped rosettes, with the base of the leaves forming a ‘vase’. In the wild, this holds rain water and acts as a storage tank. Always keep the vase filled with water, watering directly into it and not onto the potting mixture. With Air-plants and Epiphytes grown on tree branches, mist the leaves and moss-wrapped roots.


Epiphytes have different flowering and growing seasons, but always water more when in active growth and when flower buds begin to form. Rain water at room temperature is best.

Humidity and ventilation

Most Epiphytes need high humidity, especially in hot weather. Provide this by mist spraying the plants daily, or even twice daily; or by growing the plants on a tray or dish of pebbles kept topped up with water. (If you grow Epiphytes in a greenhouse, spraying the floor and staging, or ‘damping down’, i.e. watering the benches, is usual.)

Good ventilation is equally important, as high humidity in close conditions leads to a build up of diseases.


As a general rule for Bromeliads, Epiphytic Ferns and Forest Cacti, 13-20°C (55°-70°E) is fine, though Bromeliads may need higher temperatures to produce flowers. When resting in winter, 13°-15°C (55°-60°H is adequate, but many will tolerate down to 10°C (50°F). Orchids need temperatures of about 20°C (70°F) in summer, 15°C (60°F) in winter. Most Epiphytes like a definite drop in temperature at night, but with Orchids, this is especially important.

Epiphytes to try

There are many different Epiphytes, ranging from tropical Ferns to Cacti. By following a few simple guidelines, you can keep them all flourishing.

  • Airplants (Tillandsia– a wide range to choose from)
  • Bird’s Nest Bromeliad (Nidularium)
  • Bird’s Nest Fern (Aspleniun nidus)
  • Blushing Bromeliad (Neoregelia)
  • Butterfly Orchid (Oncidium)
  • Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergia)
  • Coelogyne Orchid (Coelogyne)
  • Corsage Orchid (Cattleya)
  • Earth Star (Cryptanthus)
  • Easter Cactus (Rhipsalidopsis)
  • Flaming Sword (Vriesea) Guzmania (Guzmania)
  • Mistletoe Cactus (Rhipsalis cassutha)
  • Orchid Cactus (Epiphyllum)
  • Pineapple Plant (Ananas)
  • Rat’s Rail Cactus (Aporocactus)
  • Stag’s Horn Fern (Platycerium)
  • Urn Plant (Aechmea)

My Urn Plant made a lovely pink flower but now it’s starting to die. What should I do?

The main rosette of many Bromeliads die after flowering. Most, though, produce basal offsets. Remove and pot them up, discarding the old, central rosette.

I noticed brown dots on the fronds of my Bird’s Nest Fern. Is something wrong?

If the dots are in a line on the frond underside, they are spore cases, and all is well. If the dots are like scattered, raised shells, they are probably scale insects. Wipe off with a damp cloth, then spray with malathion.

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