11 Different Types of Epiphytic Plants That Can Grow on Trees

Did you know that there are a number of different plants that can actually grow on trees? These plants are called Epiphytes and derive most of their nutrients from a host tree. In this article, we take a deeper look at some of our favorite epiphytic plants that grow on trees, and what environments they thrive in!

plants that grow on trees


There is a wide selection of plants that grow on trees, ranging from darkly hued ferns to brightly colored flowers. Plants that rely on trees and other plants as physical support but live in symbioses without depleting their host plant of any nutrients or water are called epiphytes.

Epiphytes can be grown in their native climates, but are also becoming more popular as indoor houseplants, since most of them are fairly small. They also require less maintenance than some of the more popular indoor and outdoor garden plants.

In this article, we’ll look at several epiphytes that add physical appeal by developing alongside the trees on which they grow. Most of these plants that grow on trees have impressive florals but are from a variety of plant types. Common epiphytes that will be covered in this article are bromeliads, cacti, ferns, and orchids. Let’s jump in!

Bird’s Nest Fern

Asplenium nidus
The Bird’s Nest Fern should grow in an area that’s light enough, but with shading from direct sunlight.
Scientific Name: Asplenium nidus
  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Geographic Origin: Hawaii, Australia, East Africa, and Southeast Asia
  • Plant Size: 3-5 ft.
  • Sun Exposure: indirect sunlight to partial shade
  • Plant Zone: 11-12

There are many varieties of epiphytic ferns, but Bird’s Nest ferns are one of the most visually striking. They tend to grow between the trunk and branches of trees or near the tree base, and their tufted growth pattern resembles giant bird’s nests.

They can reach heights of up to five feet in their natural habitat, although they tend to grow smaller when grown as houseplants. Their leaves are broad, flat, and vibrant green, with a single black line radiating up the middle of each frond.

Christmas Cactus

Schlumbergera x buckleyi
In nature, Christmas Cactus grows in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America.
Scientific Name: Schlumbergera x buckleyi
  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Geographic Origin: South America
  • Plant Size: 6-12 inches
  • Sun Exposure: bright, indirect light to partial shade
  • Plant Zone: 10-12

This Schlumbergera variety is most commonly referred to as a ‘Christmas cactus,’ but very similar varieties of this plant are all considered to be ‘holiday cacti.’ This is because while all of the cacti are roughly the same, they are designated different holidays depending on when they bloom. For example, the Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter cacti bloom in different months, closest to those holidays.

Growing as epiphytes in their natural habitats, Christmas cacti do best with partial shade or at the very least filtered or indirect light that mimics the canopy of the trees they grow on when grown as a houseplant. Watch for faded flowers and cactus leaves, as they may indicate that your cactus is getting too much bright light.

Unlike many other epiphytic plants, Christmas cacti can easily be planted in cactus soil and grow well indoors.

Christmas cacti are small and cheerful-looking, and when they bloom, they offer bunches of petite, brightly colored flowers. While Christmas cacti are most commonly seen with bright red foliage, other holiday cacti showcase pink, purple, and white florals.

Crispum Orchid

Odontoglossum crispum
In nature, Crispum Orchids are found in the mountainous regions of South and Central America with a tropical and subtropical climates.
Scientific Name: Odontoglossum crispum
  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Geographic Origin: South America
  • Plant Size: 16 inches tall
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
  • Plant Zone: 11

Like most orchids, the Crispum orchid is very difficult to grow outdoors unless you live in precisely the right geographical area, and this orchid is even more specialized than some. However, what it lacks in widespread availability, it more than makes up for in appearance, as these orchids are some of the most visually striking of all epiphytes.

There is some diversity in their physical appearance, but typically Crispum orchids are a very pale pink or white with darker brown spots and star-like, pointed petals. They are truly a sight to behold when growing in their natural epiphytic habitats, but don’t despair if you find yourself unable to cultivate these beauties outdoors.

Crispum orchids can be grown indoors using orchid potting soil and can tolerate either bright, indirect sunlight or partial shade.

Fireball Bromeliad

Neoregelia 'Fireball'
Most Fireball Bromeliads are epiphytes that live on trees rather than in the soil.
Scientific Name: Neoregelia ‘Fireball’
  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Geographic Origin: North America, South America
  • Plant Size: 6 inches
  • Sun Exposure: bright direct or indirect sunlight
  • Plant Zone: 8-11

As its name might suggest, the fireball bromeliad is a striking shock of red that adds an impressive display to any tree on which it grows. Its growth pattern is very distinct, as it grows in small six-inch tufts along stolons and wraps itself prolifically around trees.

When looking up into a tree in which a fireball bromeliad is growing, it can almost look as though entire sections of the tree’s trunk are red.

In addition to its striking color, this bromeliad is unique in its ability to handle intense, direct sunlight. It thrives with the sun, and while it can handle partial shade, it tends to do much better when it has access at least to bright, indirect light for much of the day.

So long as you meet its light requirements, the fireball bromeliad is a relatively low-maintenance houseplant and offers much aesthetic appeal.

Flaming Sword

Vriesea splendens
Flaming Sword is an epiphytic or terrestrial plant native to the forests of Eastern Brazil.
Scientific Name: Vriesea splendens
  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Geographic Origin: Central America, South America
  • Plant Size: 2 feet, on average
  • Sun Exposure:  indirect sunlight to partial shade
  • Plant Zone: 10-12

The flaming sword is one of the most visually striking plants on this list, and like many bromeliads, they have a brightly colored bloom radiating from the center of the plant. These epiphytes attach to trees and have zebra-like stripes on their leaves with a central flame-like spade.

In its natural habitat, this bromeliad will collect rainwater; when kept as a houseplant, pour water into the plant center. In the wild, bromeliad pools are often home to more diminutive plants, and small animals such as frogs and salamanders make these plants their homes.

Flamingo Flower

Anthurium spp
Many Anthuriums are native to the tropical rainforests of central and South America.
Scientific Name: Anthurium spp.
  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Geographic Origin: Caribbean; Central and South America
  • Plant Size: 1-3 ft.
  • Sun Exposure: Bright, indirect light
  • Plant Zone: 11-12

The flamingo flower, also commonly called the painter’s palette, is a beautiful epiphytic flower belonging to the Anthurium family. Native to tropical regions of Central and South America, the flamingo flower is known for its dark green, waxy leaves, and bright, uniquely shaped red “flowers,” called spathes.

Somewhat of a misnomer, the flamingo flower has large, red flower-like spathes that look like actual flowers from a distance. But when you get closer to the plant, you notice that the arrowhead-shaped spathes are unlike typical flowers in that they are broad and waxy, with a conical spadix protruding from the center of the spathe, much like a calla lily.

These beauties typically grow under the canopy of trees in tropical rainforests and, in their native habitat, get ample filtered sunlight but avoid the harsh rays of direct light. Because of their epiphytic nature, flamingo flowers are very low-maintenance, making them popular houseplants.

When grown indoors, these plants do best when potted in well-draining soil to keep their roots moist but not wet; they like ample humidity because of their tropical roots. If you find your flamingo flower beginning to lean, consider getting a stake or trellis to lean against to emulate its natural epiphytic growth preferences.


Phoradendron spp
Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic evergreen plant from the subfamily Viscaceae.
Scientific Name: Phoradendron spp. (North America), Viscum spp. (Europe), Arceuthobium spp.
  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Geographic Origin: Asia, North America, and Europe
  • Plant Size: 1.5-2 feet tall
  • Sun Exposure: Part  sun to full sun
  • Plant Zone: 5-9

Mistletoe is one of the more interesting plants that grow on trees because, unlike all the other epiphytic plants, mistletoe is actually a parasitic plant. This means that, unlike the other plants that live in symbiosis with the trees they grow on, mistletoe steals the necessary water and nutrients from trees. Mistletoe can actually kill the host tree that it grows upon over time, depending on its growth.

There are many different varieties of mistletoe that all have strikingly different appearances, but some mistletoe has striking floral colors and can actually benefit the ecosystem by attracting pollinators.

Orchid Cactus

Disocactus ackermannii
Orchid Cactus blooms in May or June with large attractive flowers, the color of which depends on the variety.
Scientific Name: Disocactus ackermannii
  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Geographic Origin: Central America, South America
  • Plant Size: 2-10 feet tall
  • Sun Exposure: indirect sunlight, partial shade
  • Plant Zone: 10-11

The name ‘Orchid Cactus’ may leave you wondering whether this plant is an orchid or a cactus, but this beauty is indeed a cactus. This plant is called orchid cactus because of its striking flower, and the cactus leaves themselves grow impressively long and droop downwards.

The leaves of the orchid cactus are devoid of spikes and are slender and scalloped, much resembling the leaves of the more commonly grown fishbone cactus.

However, in addition to their leaves, these cactuses grow striking flowers that come in various colors (commonly red and white) that also grow downwards. When grown at home, they are perfect for hanging planters, allowing the cactus to hang naturally.

Pink Quill

Tillandsia cyanea
Pink Quill flowers are diverse – their flowering can last several months, or it can end in a few days.
Scientific Name: ​​Tillandsia cyanea
  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Geographic Origin: South America
  • Plant Size: 10-20 inches
  • Sun Exposure: partial shade
  • Plant Zone: 11-13

The entire category of epiphytes is often referred to as air plants, but when we hear the phrase “air plant,” we often think of the small, spindly decorative houseplants. The pink quill, also commonly called the blue-flowered torch, resembles more of a traditional air plant than many other plants on this list.

It has long, green leaves, and when grown under the right conditions, it produces impressive purplish bracts with attached purple flowers. Your pink quill can produce more than one bract in its lifetime and, although epiphytic, can actually be grown in soil as a houseplant.

Staghorn Fern

Platycerium bifurcatum
Staghorn Fern needs high humidity and prefers partial shade.
Scientific Name: Platycerium bifurcatum
  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Geographic Origin: Australia; Asia
  • Plant Size: 2-3 feet tall
  • Sun Exposure: partial to complete shade
  • Plant Zone: 9-12

The staghorn fern is one of the most recognizable ferns and is commonly grown as a houseplant or outdoor hanging plant. These ferns are true epiphytes and, when grown in homes, are often seen mounted on wooden planks,  with their root system surrounded by sphagnum moss.

In their natural habitat, staghorn ferns love to latch onto healthy host trees and boast impressive, broad, green leaves that truly resemble antlers. Their antler fronds can grow upwards of three feet in the wild, and they also grow shield fronds near the root system designed to absorb water and nutrients into their root system.

Because of their sub-tropical origin, staghorn ferns are somewhat fussy only in the sense that they require a higher level of humidity than some other common houseplants, making them great bathroom companions. If you have a mounted staghorn fern at home, consider gently misting its root ball every few days to keep your plant happy and healthy.

Vanda Orchid

Vanda spp
Vanda Orchid blooms with variegated, brightly colored flowers of various sizes.
Scientific Name: Vanda spp.
  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Geographic Origin: Asia; New Guinea
  • Plant Size: 1-3 feet
  • Sun Exposure: depends on the variety, but they typically like bright filtered sunlight
  • Plant Zone: 10-11

Many people are unaware that it’s common for orchids to grow with trees and other large plants in their natural habitat. Vanda orchids are known both for their striking flowers that all grow from a single stem and their extensive root systems.

While many orchid varieties make excellent houseplants, Vandas are almost exclusively grown as epiphytes because their root system is so large and demanding that they are difficult to contain in pots and planters.

Because of their epiphytic nature, Vanda orchids do well with bright, filtered sunlight but can be sensitive to direct sunlight, which may scorch their delicate leaves and petals. Conversely, their striking color may be less impressive and their growth much slower without adequate sunlight.

Final Thoughts

The above 11 epiphytes (with the exception of mistletoe, which is a parasite) are beautiful plants that you may see growing on trees in their natural habitats but are often grown indoors as houseplants as well.

Epiphytes are a normal and healthy part of many ecosystems, and you should not be immediately alarmed if you see smaller plants growing on trees, as much of the time, these plants are growing in harmony. You may even want to adopt one as a houseplant!

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