Are you curious about the many types of epiphytic plants out there? In this post. We’ll explore some of the most popular varieties that can be grown as houseplants.
Epiphytic plants are organisms that grow on the surface of other plants. They receive their nutrients from the air, rain, and debris accumulating around them, and do not rely on the earth’s soil.
Because of their resiliency, and ability to grow in a variety of conditions, they make great houseplants. They can grow in a variety of containers, and are even adaptable to living in terrariums. We especially love epiphytic varieties that can be grown in hanging containers.
Below you will find a list of our favorite epiphytic ferns, orchids, cacti and bromeliads. We hope you find one you like, and decide to add it to your collection of wonderful houseplants.
Here are some common types of fern houseplants you can grow.
Staghorn Fern (Platycerium spp.)
Staghorn Ferns, also known as elkhorn fern or antelope ears, normally grow along with different types of trees in the wild. They get their name from the unique, antler-like shape of their foliage, which as you guessed, resembles the horns of elk, antelope, and stags.
These ferns produce spores as reproductive organs on the edges of their lobed fronds. They do not flower and do not grow in soil. Instead, they prefer tree bark and other types of woody substrate like peat compost or even baskets. They enjoy low to medium levels of indirect light.
Blue Star Fern (Phlebodium aureum)
This variety of epiphytic fern is native to tropical rainforest environments. This means that they enjoy warmer temperatures. Their foliage boasts a blue-green hue, hence the name, and can sometimes even be speckled with silver and gray.
The Blue Star Fern makes for a reliable house plant because it can grow in a variety of sunlight conditions, and requires slightly less humidity than other epiphytic ferns. Plus, it only tends to grow to about 2 feet tall, making it ideal for smaller spaces.
Bird’s Nest Fern (Asplenium nidus)
This Asplenium nidus fern can be identified by its bright green, spoon-like fronds that can grow upwards of 5 feet long, and that roughly form the shape of a bird’s nest. However, indoors as a houseplant, the fronds tend to grow no longer than 2 feet in length. Compared to some other epiphytic ferns, the Bird’s Nest Fern, also known as the Nest Fern, has a relatively slow growth rate.
When the Nest Fern is fully mature, it can grow to be 3 to 5 feet tall, and 2 to 3 feet wide. If you are wanting to add a Nest Fern to your air plant collection, you might consider doing so during the Springtime for best results. They prefer partial sun and shade, and are happiest in loamy, well-draining substrate.
Rabbit’s Foot Fern (Davallia fejeensis)
The Rabbit’s Foot Fern is a popular epiphytic houseplant because it tends to be less finicky than other ferns. It requires a less humid environment than other varieties.
This fern is native to the island of Fiji, and is easily identifiable by its lacey and furry rhizomes that tend to hang over the edges of the pot, which, with a bit of imagination, look like the furry feet of rabbits.
These intriguing-looking ferns prefer bright, but indirect sunlight. Exposure to direct sunlight tends to scorch the delicate fronds of the Rabbit’s Foot Fern. With routine, weekly watering, and some light fertilizing, this fern will impress you and your house guests for years to come.
Squirrel’s Foot Fern (Davallia trichomanoides)
At first glance, the Squirrel’s Foot Fern could be mistaken as a Rabbit’s Foot fern. But in actuality, it’s quite different. The rhizomes of this plant are covered in white and golden fuzz, and the lacey fronds spread along the rhizomes themselves, instead of arching out from the center of the plant.
If given the right conditions, the Squirrel’s Foot Fern can successfully be grown outside in your garden. However, it is most popular as a houseplant due to its easy and low maintenance nature.
These plants grow great in containers, especially in hanging baskets where their fuzzy rhizomes can grow freely and dangle. Unlike other epiphytic ferns, the Squirrel’s Foot is drought tolerant, making a strict watering schedule less of a necessity.
Strap Ferns (Campyloneurum phyllitidis)
In nature, Strap Ferns are most commonly found in the shady and moist understories of forest-like environments. They mount themselves on fallen logs, rocks and particularly prefer cyprus trees.
Like other epiphytic ferns, they receive their nutrients from the moisture and other particulates in the air around them.
Mature Strap Ferns can grow to be about 2 to 3 feet in height. Which is an ideal size for a house plant. Their long, slender and almost ribbed foliage grows upwards from the center and boast an attractive light (almost lime) green. They go dormant in the winter time, and can be propagated from division, or with their spores during the Springtime.
Many types of orchids are also epiphytic and can be grown indoors in containers.
Crimson Cattleya (Cattleya labiata)
The Crimson Cattleya Orchid is an epiphytic perennial that is sometimes also called the Ruby-Lipped Orchid. They are not difficult to care for, making them an ideal orchid for beginner gardeners.
Cattleya Orchids make great houseplants, but they can also be kept outside year-round as long as you live in an area that has tropical climates and does not experience frost.
This species of orchid is medium-sized and produces big, luscious blooms that vary in color from pink, red, and lilac. Hence the name. It was first discovered in 1818 in Brazil, and since then, has become a staple species for orchid growers around the world.
Sweet Sugar Orchid (Oncidium oncidesa)
The Sweet Sugar Orchid is considered to be one of the dancing lady orchid varieties. If you look closely, the labellum of the orchis resembles a skirt, the two sepals on each side are her arms, and the third sepal on top is her head. When the orchid really takes off and blooms all along its slender stems (sometimes up to 15 blooms), it looks like a full array of dancers.
This orchid needs to be watered once a week, and sometimes more if you notice the substrate to be drying out more quickly. Because these orchids like warmer temperatures, they should never be kept in an area that can get lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Their ideal temperature range is from 60 degrees in the winter, and 75 degrees in the summer.
Crispum Orchid (Odontoglossum crispum)
This orchid, also known as the Curied Odontoglossum is considered to be one of the most beautiful orchids. However, it is also notorious for being difficult to grow.
These plants are native to the highlands of Colombia where they grow at altitudes of 6,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. They mainly grow on trunks of trees, and along the main branches of oak trees. They prefer partial shade, but can also tolerate the occasional full sun conditions. They enjoy moist, well-draining growing mediums and should be watered regularly.
There are even some types of epiphytic cacti you can grow!
Orchid Cactus (Epiphyllum spp.)
The Orchid Cactus is popular for its large, cup-shaped, and showy flowers. The flowers bloom at the end of the cactus’ branches and can be a variety of different colors like, pink, white, red, yellow, orange, and purple. Some can even be bicolored depending on the hybridization of the plant.
The branches of Orchid Cacti are long, serrated, and broad. If left alone, they can grow up to 2 feet long. For that reason, these epiphytic cacti do great as hanging plants. To encourage these cacti to bloom, focus on the following items:
- Water sparingly and fertilize less for 8 to 10 weeks during the winter
- Keep your Cactus Orchid in bright, indirect sunlight year-round
- Feed it with high-phosphorus fertilizer during the Spring and Summer
- Once buds appear, leave it alone and don’t change the location.
Mistletoe Cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera)
The Mistletoe Cactus is an interesting cactus with slender chain-like branches that requires very little and is easy to grow. For that reason, we think the Mistletoe Cactus is the perfect epiphytic cactus for beginners. It enjoys warm and humid environments largely because it’s native to countries like Mexico and Brazil. This cactus would absolutely love living in Florida.
Unlike other varieties, the Mistletoe Cactus requires shade and partial sun. This makes it the ideal houseplant for those shadier, hard-to-reach locations in your home. It can be potted in a container with a reliable store-bought cactus mix or mounted on bark or some other woody substrate like orchids.
Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera spp.)
Unlike some other cacti, the Christmas Cactus is not actually native to dry and arid desert environments. On the other hand, this epiphytic succulent is native to warm and humid environments found in the rainforests of Brazil where it grows along tree branches and soaks up dappled sunlight.
The Christmas Cactus gets its name from the colorful and tubular pink flowers that bloom along its branches. If the conditions are right, this cactus actually tends to bloom around Christmas time. Due to its necessity for a humid environment, we recommend locating this cactus in the bathroom or in the kitchen.
Chain Cactus (Rhipsalis paradoxa)
This interesting-looking cactus is also native to Brazil. It gets its name from the long, skinny, and chain-like structure. Because of its sprawling nature, this epiphytic cactus is perfect for window sills and in hanging containers so that its chain-like branches can spill over and create a jungle vibe, almost as if you were in Brazil.
The Chain Cactus is happiest in bright, indirect sunlight. It can also tolerate partial shade or dappled sunlight.
Try to avoid letting your Chain Cactus become exposed to direct sunlight, as the intense heat may scorch the plant. Depending on the space, and the conditions, its branches can grow upwards of five feet long. Starting in the late winter and early spring, the Chain Cactus begins to bloom with tiny white flowers scattered along the branches, and small red fruits.
There are thousands of different species of bromeliads. Some look like regular grass species, while others look like aloe. Even pineapples are bromeliads. But the most popular bromeliads are the ones that add a tropical and exotic flair to your home. These also tend to be easy to grow and low maintenance which makes them great houseplants.
In general, there are three types of bromeliads:
- Saxicolous: bromeliads that grow on rocks
- Terrestrial: bromeliads that grow in the ground
- Epiphytic: bromeliads that grow on other plants, and surfaces (even telephone lines)
As you might expect, it is this last category we will focus on below.
See more:Bromeliad plant care
The Common Air Plant (Tillandsia stricta)
This species of air plant originates from countries like Trinidad, Uruguay, Brazil, Venezuela, Paraguay, Guyana, and Northern Argentina. It has been documented growing in a wide variety of environments, including sand dunes and tropical forests. This speaks to its adaptability and popularity. It also explains why it is such a great houseplant.
This variety matures in the summer and produces beautiful, small flowers that can be blue, purple, and even yellow. Interestingly enough, the flowers of this variety of air plant only last one day. After it has bloomed, it creates “pups”. The pups can be removed in order to grow more air plants. Or they can be left intact with the mother plant where they develop into larger clumps.
Fireball Bromeliad (Neoreglia)
The Fireball Bromeliad gets its name from the red-hot coloring of its small branches. If you want the most red out of your Fireball Bromeliad, then we recommend growing it in bright light and using less fertilizer. This epiphytic bromeliad is excellent for outdoor landscaping, in hanging containers, or in terrariums.
Sky Plant (Tillandsia ionantha)
The Sky Plant (Tillandsia ionantha) is one of the most popular air-plant species. The Sky Plant is known for being low-maintenance and adaptable, making it an ideal houseplant. For that reason alone, they are perfect for a beginner who is just getting into air-plant bromeliads.
Sky Plants start out tiny. As they mature, their colors deepen, their foliage stretches and they take on a fun, wavy aesthetic. When the Sky plant blooms, it boasts small but attractive white or yellow flowers with purple shoots.
Epiphytes for Everyone
As you can see, there is an epiphytic plant to suit the needs of any gardener! Consider some of the plants listed above and enjoy the experience!