Epiphytes for Small Spaces

Epiphytes are way underutilized in small gardens, and I want to change that.  For those of you who didn't know, epiphytes are plants that have miraculously adapted to living out their lives in the branches of trees, requiring little or no soil at all!  This independence from heavy soil translates to light and easy vertical gardening!

Bromeliads like the one above, are my favorite tree dwellers.  Although there's an abundance of bromeliads in different environments ranging from deserts to rainforests and rocky beaches, the 'tank type' bromeliads in the treetops have adapted to the lack of soil and water by developing watertight rosettes that collect water and debris in their 'tanks'.  This makes them real troopers on my balcony!

Sometimes lizards get collected in the bromeliads too!  This brown anole looks like its getting devoured, but its just enjoying a refreshing drink of water.  Other creatures such as treefrogs and crayfish actually live in the cups, providing fertilizer in the form of droppings, and pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds visit the blooms and fertilize them too... in another way!  Some bromeliads even house ants in their old leaf bases.  That seems like a great security system to me!

Some bromeliads such as this tillandsia variabilis that I found at Corkscrew Swamp, have developed another adaptation to deal with the harsh life of an epiphyte.  Many tillandsias or 'air plants' look silvery because of  these tiny scales called trichomes that absorb water and nutrients from the atmosphere.  The tilly pictured above has the best of both worlds; a tank and trichome scales!

Tillandsias are probably the best epiphytes for saving space, since you can hang them along strands of fishing line and even make a lush curtain of them for some modern installation art!  Just add dramatic lighting for a super cool effect.  Oh, and if the tillandsias aren't located where they can receive rain. just be sure to mist them periodically!

The blooms of bromeliads are usually all the reason you need to love them, but they're also excellent candidates for hanging on walls or in baskets, and only require a periodic 'topping off' of water and maybe some diluted fertilizer every now and then.  If you're looking for an easy brom to start out with, aechmeas, neoregelias and vrieseas often have tough leaves and excellent water holding capabilities, and they tolerate a little drought much more agreeably than the guzmanias that fill the shelves at big box stores.

Epiphytic cacti are also great if you have limited space.  The holiday cactus pictured above is growing with no soil, and this hasn't prevented it from thriving and even blooming like it did this Mothers Day.  Much like orchids and bromeliads, you can mount these on plaques and hang them from baskets for a soil free vertical garden!  I like to insert cuttings of rhipsalis along with other plants, and they would look marvelous hanging from mounts on the wall or beneath hanging baskets. They add instant lushness!

Orchids like this vanda are some of the more glamorous looking epiphytes, and are also great space savers.  If you're buying an orchid, be sure to select one of the tougher ones with bulbous bases, or pseudobulbs.  Encyclias, oncidiums and cattleyas have them, and they store water much like desert cacti so they're less likely to flop out like that phalaenopsis that you got from the grocery store.

There are also many tiny new cultivars and hybrids that come in a space saving size, and many of the naturally diminutive species are now getting more recognition as worthwhile specimens.  My favorite is the neofinetia falcata that I recently acquired, and they are supposedly grown in ornamental little pots much like bonsai in Japan.

Ferns usually require a little more water, but some have really proven themselves as tough and adaptable for neglectful gardeners like me.  The Japanese birds nest fern pictured above is great for a dramatic focal point, and southern native resurrection fern is nice for carpeting branches or even planting among orchid baskets like I've done!

Even the cosmopolitan boston fern adapts to epiphytic life, and there's a huge oak tree in my neighborhood looks like the hanging gardens of Babylon.  Huge boston ferns spring up from the boughs and drape down, giving the impression that you're in a lush rainforest!

Vertical Gardening has never been easier with epiphytes!  Here I've constructed a 'bromeliad branch' and affixed different tillandsias to a big piece of driftwood before hanging it from my balcony's ceiling.  Now I'm experimenting with more water retentive materials to mount on, and I'm considering using knotted hemp rope, and even tubes of burlap filled with a mix of sphagnum moss and bark.  You can see a sketch of one of my ideas at The Rainforest Garden's Facebook page!

Tree trunk's bases are notoriously difficult places to grow plants, and in a small garden every inch of space is precious.  Surface roots leave no soil for planting against the tree trunk, but epiphytes are made for this sort of thing!  Here I've planted a variety of bromeliads that are cold hardy here in North Florida, and they're thriving in a mix of pine bark.  They're even starting to climb the tree, and someday I'll have a vertical garden!

The most frequently asked question here at The Rainforest Garden is some variation of "How can I grow bromeliads outdoors in my cold climate?"  If its too cold to grow epiphytes like bromeliads outdoors, plant them in a container filled with an appropriate mix of soil and bark and sink them into holes in a shady planting bed, mounding the mulch around the pot's rim.  In winter simply remove the containers and bring indoors!  If you live in zones 8-9 you can always try some of the bromeliads that are hardier to cold too.  Here are some other helpful pages:

The 5 Best Cold Hardy Bromeliads
Cold Hardy Bromeliads: Billbergia
5 Ways to Have a Tropical Garden Wherever You Live
Aechmea Cylindrata 'Blue Cone' 


  1. I feel inspired to do a post on my epiphytic plants! I have a fair few myself, and part of the reason is that they're generally small which allows for more collecting. lol!

    Great post!

  2. Once again a very informative post. Gosh I love that closeup of the pink and blue flowers - quite mesmerizing. I like the way you have tied the air plants onto that branch too - why doesnt it look artistic when I do something like that?

  3. Lots of good info here. I didn't know the Holiday cactus didn't need soil. Mmmm.. I have three different colors of that. They just might get divided after blooming this year and mounted on driftwood.

  4. Notsoangryredhead:
    Oh boy! Please do that post! They really are the perfect collector's plant, and there are so many to choose from too!

    It only looks artistic because its a pretty branch with an "S" curve! I also attached the biggest one on the bottom so it anchors the piece visually.

    Here's how mine are planted. That 'container' is actually a chunk of tree fern trunk with bark in the middle! I actually rooted and started the cuttings in soil, but promptly planted then in the tree fern chunk where they took root. I water the centerpiece once or twice every week, keeping it drier in winter. It will still work if you're growing it on driftwood, you'll just want to water and feed it a little more. I've seen rhipsalis mounted on driftwood before too!

  5. RFG,
    The Bromeliads attatched to the driftwood is a neat idea. It looks really good on your balcony.

  6. Love your post, here! I am so happy with the broms I have scattered among the branches under my hibiscus...they seem to be happy there, and getitng enough sun to keep the tips pink on the ones that do it! So far, only rain water has done the trick!

  7. Good post Steve. Now I just need some tilandsia... But I can't get over the fact that they look kinda artificial... I love the lilac/pink flower though - very much.

  8. I have a Queen's Tears Bromeliad that's been in the same container for over 15 years..ever heard of it?

  9. Sanddune:
    I'm sure you could even leave it outdoors if you tried it down south!

    Bromeliads under a hibiscus sounds really pretty! They are pretty drought tolerant, but the lack of water is making the cups go stagnant in my garden... blah.

    I never looked at them like that! I guess since I've seen them on hikes in the woods before I started gardening they look more natural. There are trees in the everglades COVERED in them!

    Yeah! Queens tears is a kind of bilbergia, and its one of the cold hardier broms out there! You can grow it outdoors anywhere in Florida, so why not divide it and plant some outside? They even do well in trees, and look great in the boots of palm trees.

  10. What a beautiful post! I love your photos and all the great tidbits about utilizing these plants in small spaces. Thanks!

  11. My balcony is narrow and vertical gardening is suitable for it. I wanna try it. Thanks for sharing.

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