I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned them before, but after visiting the San Mateo County Fairgrounds today for a garden show, I’m feeling planty. And having just bought a little green bromeliad to join my ever-expanding window garden in Hanover, I was inspired just now to read a little more about epiphytic plants and bromeliads in general.
In Costa Rica, especially in the wetter areas, space is valuable. Once a tree has a foothold in the soil and a clear view of the sun, it can take off and spread its canopy as wide as possible, filling in the spaces and cutting the light off from the understory of the forest. Even in the lower light smaller, larger-leaved plants can grow and soak up whatever trickles down from their bigger cousins. Every inch of ground besides the continually cleared paths has something growing on in, whether it’s bare rock covered by lichens and liverworts and mosses or soil sprouting ferns and palms. But some plants have found yet another space to call their own- epiphytic plants, a “type,” but not a taxonomic distinction, use structures not their own to lift themselves above the ground, toward the light and the rain.
Mosses, liverworts, and lichens can also be considered epiphytes, since they grow on tree trunks and bare rocks- they aren’t parasites and don’t suck nutrients out of the trees or substrates that they grow on, but rather use ambient moisture and nutrients that collect in tiny pockets. The epiphytes that capture my attention, however, are the orchids and bromeliads, showy and beautiful waxy leaves and flowers that spring seemingly from nothing and adorn the branches of canopy trees.
The spiky additions to the branches bearing reddish leaves are bromeliads, some of my favorite plants. They’re known sometimes as “air plants” because they don’t always grow in dirt, but rather absorb whatever they can from surfaces and the atmosphere around them. Pineapples, possibly the most famous of the bromeliads, do grow on the ground and in the soil, but many others live their whole lives without ever touching the surface of the earth, sending fluffy wind-borne seeds from tree to tree or budding off little clones of themselves to propagate.
If the seeds manage to hit a tree (or a fencepost, telephone pole, rooftop, or cliffside,) they can sprout and slowly add leaves. Eventually they flower and send out more fluffy seeds, or set out little clones.
Soon to come, photos of my favorite little bromeliad-in-a-jar. It lives on my windowsill and is soaking in some water at the moment- it was looking a little dry.