Pictures and text by Ken Uy

Bromeliad on cork slab


     Epiphytes are plants that in nature grow on other plants.  Most epiphytes do not harm their hosts, simply using them as surfaces to attach themselves to. They do so to take advantage of the available growing space up in trees, where they can have access to more sunlight. In a tropical rainforest, plants ranging from mosses and lichens to cacti, orchids and bromeliads may grow as epiphytes. 

     Because of their living conditions, epiphytes have special adaptations that have to be taken into consideration when planting them in an artificial environment. Most of them cannot tolerate constantly wet roots, since up among the branches of a tree their root systems are used to excellent drainage. Many epiphytes will tend to rot when planted in a heavy water retentive medium more suitable for terrestrial plants. Epiphytes are also used to good air circulation, so a vivarium where epiphytes are planted should be reasonable well ventilated. 

     There are many ways to grow epiphytes in vivariums.  Epiphytes can be kept in containers of suitable planting mix, and the potted plants can be arranged within the vivarium.  They can be grown directly on the vivarium floor if a suitable substrate is used, such as a commercial or homemade planting mix used for orchids or bromeliads. Such a mix should provide good drainage and allow air to reach the roots of the plants. 

     A more interesting way of growing them would be to attach them to raised surfaces much like the way they grow in nature. They can be grown on vertical spaces such as tree fern root, cork or coconut fiber panels that are attached to the walls of the vivarium. They can also be attached to cork slabs or branches, or grown in cork bark tubes filled with planting mix. The choice of growing method depends on several things, but the most important thing to consider is the type of environment the vivarium will provide. If air circulation is limited and conditions are going to be extremely wet, then attaching the plants to the substrate with a minimum of water retentive material around the roots will probably be the best choice. If there is going to be plenty of air circulation, then a thick moss padding wrapped around the plants' roots, or planting them in cork tubes or pots might be the better way to go. 

     As far as determining the plants' positions goes, take into consideration their eventual size and growth habits. In the greenhouse conditions of a vivarium, many plants may grow larger than they would under regular houseplant conditions, so make sure the kinds of plants you choose will either have enough room to develop to their full potential, or be able to take a lot of pruning.  Plants that can take more moisture at the roots can be put near the bottom of the branch, near the moist vivarium substrate, while plants that need more light and dryer conditions can be positioned higher up. 

     For visual interest, use plants with contrasting colors and leaf textures. Choose a bold looking plant as the focal point, then arrange other plants around it like garnishing. Unless you have a very large vivarium, do not try to cram too many different kinds of plants in. The best displays often consist of only a few kinds of plants that are growing in healthy clumps that complement each other, rather than an overgrown mishmash of species. Of course, since this is essentially just gardening, feel free to experiment by try to plan ahead to avoid any extra work and disruption to the vivarium. If necessary, temporary filler plants may be used to provide quick growing cover for the animals as long as these plants are easily controlled. 

     Keep the plants and their chosen substrates well watered, but give them plenty of light and air circulation to allow them to dry out between waterings. When you see healthy roots attaching themselves into the substrate, and are rewarded with blooming plants, then you'll know you've got things right. 


 Copyright © 1999 by Kenneth K. Uy. All rights reserved.