Weird! Plants That Do Not Need Soil!

Have you ever heard of a plant that doesn’t need soil to thrive? There are a whole group of such plants! They are called epiphytes! You might know them as air plants.

I first became interested in epiphytic plants when I was leading an after-school garden club for elementary students, years ago. Planning a holiday plant unit using Rhipsalis cactus cuttings, I learned that epiphytic plants draw the nutrients and moisture they need to thrive from the air!

Most of these plants live in tropical areas of the world and sub-tropical areas of our country. This means places like Costa Rica and Brazil have epiphytes as do Hawaii, Florida, and the Carolinas. My list is not all-inclusive.

But where there is a tree canopy in the tropical rainforest or high humidity with the Carolinas, you’ll find epiphytes thriving! Epiphytes adapted to be able to survive in these environments.

How?

Great question!

These plants live in the canopy to receive enough light. If they were on the ground, in a dense tropical rainforest or subtropical garden, light would not reach them in any significant amount. There, high on the tree limbs and trunks, epiphytes have specialized leaves that collect rainwater, then it drains away quickly to escape the chance of rotting on a moist forest floor. The humidity in the air provides the water these plants need as well. Roots do most of the collecting of water and nutrients right from the humid air that surrounds them.

These plants are NOT parasitic. They live on other plant structures such as branches and bark and trunks for support only; they do not “take nutrition” from the plant on which they live. This would be a logical assumption but it is incorrect. Furthermore, you’ll find epiphytes living in or near crotches on trees where branches meet the trunk. Debris and water also get collected there and the epiphytic plant takes advantage of that too.

What are some air plants that you would know about?

This group of plants includes orchids, tillandsia, moss, and some cacti such as the Rhipsalis mentioned above and also Schlumbergera the well-known Thanksgiving and Christmas Cactus. Some bromeliads or members of the pineapple family also qualify as epiphytes. Some, the pineapple, require being in the ground to produce fruit. These are referred to as terrestrial plans.

Epiphytes are an interesting group of plants. My former students certainly found them fun and interesting, amazing them with their ability to live while not being in any soil. For projects, we took cuttings of the Rhipsalis and the Schlumbergera. The students could then watch the plants grow and explain their unusual qualities to their families. These are tropical cacti, not dessert cacti. This was another interesting facet for the students. Most think cacti only grow in arid environments.

Upon our visit to the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens last week, I was thrilled to find a whole room dedicated to epiphytes!

Bromeliad in the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. July 2022. © Carol Labuzzetta
Bromeliads and Tillandsia growing on a tree trunk in the Buffalo Botanical Gardens. July 2022. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2022.
Bromeliad in the ground and on a tree. Spanish Moss hanging on wires, both in the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. July 2022. © Carol Labuzzetta.
Orchids are Epiphytes. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2022.
Tillandsia on a tree. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2022.
Orchids, Tillandsia, and Mosses at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2022.

I also grow Orchids, Tillandsias, and Schlumbergera at home. The Rhipsalis died off after a couple of years and I have been unable to replace it. Don’t you want to grow an epiphyte now? Even though these plants thrive in the tropics, you can grow them at home! Good luck!

This post was originally published on my page at Medium.com. Looking for more followers on that sight! I’d love it if you followed my writing there! I’m halfway to my goal of 100 followers by the end of the month! Thanks!

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