Arxiu d'etiquetes: orchids

Epiphytes, plants that do not need soil

We often hear that epiphytes plants live on the air and it really seems like this, because they don’t nearly need soil to develop. They grow on trunks taking advantage of his height in search of the source of energy much wanted in tropical forests: the sun. In this article we describe epiphytes adaptations and the most common epiphytic groups of these amazing plants.

Epiphytes adaptations

The epiphytes live on other plants without parasitize them or damaging any of its organs or functions. Epiphytes take advantage of other plants structures as physical support to grow into the shaded forest canopy, using the trunks and branches of older trees to reach more height and catch the sunlight. Epiphytes never touch the ground; they are adapted to live on the air!

Epiphytic plants including Cactaceae, Bromeliaceae and ferns growink on a trunk. Source: Barres Fotonatura.

They have amazing adaptations as a result of this habit, such as:

• The ability to capture water and nutrients from the air, the rain and the small amount of soil or organic debris that may remain in the trees trunk where they root.

• Their roots are much more adapted to anchor to the trunks that to absorve water and nutrients.

• Frequently, they develop structures to accumulate moisture.

Although epiphyte plants depend on its host to obtain their nutrients, sometimes they grow so much that overload their host and end up killing their support. This is the case of some Ficus (Moraceae), called “strangler fig” that develop aerial roots around other trees without letting them grow.

Hollow structure left by a stranges fig after killing its hoste. Source: Wikipedia.

Thanks to the epiphytes contribution we can say that tropical rain forest is organized in a vertical gradient along the trees trunks, where we find organism diversity organized according to their distance to the ground. Epiphytes are largely responsible for the extremely rich biodiversity that makes tropical rainforests the most complex ecosystems on Earth. Besides providing different layers of vegetation along height, epiphytes provide shelter and nutrients to different insects and amphibians; who use water stored in the epiphytes leaves as a shelter or nest in the refuge generated in the middle of the trunk.

Water accumulated on a Bromeliad. Source: Otávio Nogueira, Creative Commons.

Epiphytes are found mostly in tropical rainforests, where dozens epiphytes have recorded on a single tree. However, in temperate climates or even deserts we can also found  drought tolerant epiphytic species.

Epiphytes diversity

Currently, approximately 25,000 species are epiphytes. Most common and known epiphytes are Bromeliaceae and Orchidaceae families and ferns. Epiphytism has appeared several times throughout evolution and we found examples in other tropical spermatophytes (plants with seed and trunk) like Ericaceae, Gesneriaceae, Melastomataceae, Moraceae and Piperaceae and also in seedless plants (lichens, mosses and liver) of temperate climates.


Orchids have the highest number of epiphytic in the world, with 20 tropical epiphytic genera. The genus with much epiphytes species number are Bulbophyllum (1800) and Dendrobium (1200). The genus of epiphytic orchids Phalaenopsis (60 species) is cultivated worldwide because of its beauty. In fact, many plants used in interior gardening are epiphytes because they have few nutrients and water requirements.

Epidendrum sp. orchids. Source: Barres Fotonatura.

Among orchids, we wanted to highlight a species known for a different reason: the vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), native to Mexico and Central America, where it was consumed with cocoa. It was imported to Reunion island and Madagascar (currently first world producers) by the Spaniards when they discovered their amazing flavor. The vanilla crops imitate their naturally grow on trees, and vanilla plants are not grown on ground, but on logs. The part of the vanilla plant that is consumed is the still immature fruit, after a curing process.

Vanilla cultivation on logs. Source:

Orchids have one of the most complex pollination systems throughout the plant world, with several cases of monospecific coevolution systems linked to insects and hummingbirds. Vanilla is another example, as it is only pollinated by Mexican native bees and hummingbirds, so pollination does not occur naturally in the cultivation areas and it must be done by hand. Normally, women and children still practice this handmade technique pollinating each vanilla flower to get its precious fruit. In fact, vanilla is the world’s most expensive crop, by weight.

Vanilla flower. Source:


Bromeliaceae includes more than 3,000 neotropical species, most of them epiphytic. The most species rich genera are Tillandsia (450), Pitcairnia (250), Vriesia (200), Aechmea (150) and Puya (150). The leaves of bromeliads grow in rosette facilitating the accumulation of water. The cultivation of bromeliads has been prohibited in Brazil (where we found 43% of Bromeliaceae native species) by ignorance, because it was thought that this water favored the reproduction of Aedes aegypti, mosquito transmitter of Zika, dengue and chikungunya virus. Actually, bromeliads have secondary compounds that prevent the proliferation of this mosquito eggs and larvae while the water inside the leaves creates a micro-habitat that accumulates nutrients that feed other insects, amphibians and native birds that can help fighting it. Bromeliaceae flowers have bright colors and are accompanied by showy bracts also attracting the attention of pollinators, especially hummingbirds and bats. Many bromeliads are  used as ornamental plants, especially Tillandsia and Guzmania.

Tillandsia sp. Source: Barres Fotonatura.

Epiphytes from temperate climates

One of the most incredible epiphytic ferns is the staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum), widely used as an ornamental plant. The staghorn fern is native to Australia but is found in all tropical areas used for gardening. This fern develops two leaf shapes: the first kind is kidney-shaped and does not produce spores; its function is to anchor to the trunk. These leaves eventually acquire a brown coloration and form a base from which the second kind of leaves grow; which are fertile and therefore produce spores. The fertile leaves are long and bifurcated and can grow up to 90 cm long. The spores of this fern are produced at the leaves apex that gain a velvet appearance.

The two kinds of leaves in Platycerium bifurcatum. Source: Barres Fotonatura.

At temperate forests, the most common epiphytes are lichens. Among lichens, we want to highlight Usnea or old’s men beard. It is a cosmopolitan genus growing on conifers and deciduous trees. This grayish fruticose lichen grow as curtain shape hanging from trees. Curiously, there is a species of epiphytic bromeliads that reminds Usnea because they share this particular growth form. Its called Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) but is neither a moss or lichen, but a bromeliad with very small leaves growing chained to the ground. Nor is Spanish but lives in America.

Usnea lichen growing as a curtain on temperate climates (left) and Tillandsia usneoides of tropical climates (right): Source: Barres Fotonatura and

The epiphytes are still little known because climbing techniques in tropical rainforest have only been developed recently so we still known a little about compared with carnivorous or parasitic plants. Many are still to discover!


Benzing, D.H. 1990. Vascular Epiphytes: General Biology and Related Biota. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith N., Mori S. A., Henderson, A., Stevenson D. W. & Heald, S. V. 2004. Flowering Plants of the Neotropics. New Jersey, USA: The New York Botanical Garden, Princeton university press.


Plants and animals can also live in marriage

When we think about the life of plants it is difficult to imagine without interaction with the animals, as they establish different symbiotic relationships day after day. These symbiotic relationships include all the herbivores, or in the contradictory way, all the carnivorous plants. But there are many other super important interactions between plants and animals, such as the relationships that allow them to help each other and to live together. So, this time I want to present mutualism between plants and animals.

And, what is mutualism? it is the relationship established between two organisms in which both benefit from living together, i.e., the two get a reward when they live with the other. This relationship increase their biological effectiveness (fitness), so there is a tendency to live always together.

According to this definition, both pollination and seed dispersal by animals are cases of mutualism. Let’s see.


Many plants are visited by animals seeking to feed on nectar, pollen or other sugars they produce in their flowers and, during this process, the animals carry pollen from one flower to others, allowing it reaches the stigma in a very effective way. Thus, the plant gets the benefit of fertilization with a lower cost of pollen production, which would be higher if it was dispersed through the air. And the animals, in exchange, obtain food. Therefore, a true relationship of mutualism is stablished between the two organisms.

 “Video:The Beauty of Pollination” – Super Soul Sunday – Oprah Winfrey Network (

The extreme mutualism occurs when the species evolve depending on the other organism, i.e., when there is coevolution. We define the coevolution such as these evolutionary adaptations that allow two or more organisms to establish a deep relationship of symbiosis, due that the evolutionary adaptations of one specie influence the evolutionary adaptations of another organism. For example, this occurs between various orchids and their pollinators, as is the well- known case of Darwin’s orchid. But there are many other plants that also have co-evolved with their pollinators, as a fig tree or cassava.

In no way, this should be confused with the trickery produced by some plants to their pollinators, that is, when they do not obtain any direct benefit. For example, some orchids can attract their pollinators through odours (pheromones) and their curious forms that resemble female pollinator, stimulating them to visit their flowers. The pollinators will be impregnated with pollen, which will be transported to other flowers due to the same trickery.

Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) (Autnor: Bernard DUPONT, flickr).


The origin of seed dispersal by animals probably had occurred thanks to a co-evolutionary process between animals and mechanisms of seed dispersal in which both plants and animals obtain a profit. The most probably is that this process began in the Carboniferous (~ 300MA), as it is believed that some plants like cycads developed a false fleshy fruits that could be consumed by primitive reptiles that would act as seed dispersers. This process could have intensified the diversification of flowering plants (angiosperms), small mammals and birds during the Cretaceous (65-12MA).

The mutualism can occur in two ways within the seed dispersal by animals.

The first case is carried out by animals that eat seeds or fruits. These seeds or some parts of the fruits (diaspores) are expelled without being damaged, by defecation or regurgitation, allowing the seed germination. In this case, diaspores are carriers of rewards or lures that result very attractive to animals. That is the reason why fruits are usually fleshy, sweet and often have bright colours or emit scents to attract them.

For example, the red-eyed wattle (Acacia cyclops) produces seeds with elaiosomes (a very nutritive substance usually made of lipids) that are bigger than the own seed. This suppose an elevated energy cost to the plant, because it doesn’t only have to produce seeds, as it has to generate the award too. But in return, the rose-breasted or galah cockatoo (Eolophus roseicapillus) transports their seeds in long distances. Because when the galah cockatoo eats elaiosomes, it also ingest seeds which will be transported by its flight until they are expelled elsewhere.

On the left,  Galah  cockatoo (Eolophus roseicapillus) (Autnor: Richard Fisher, flickr) ; On the right, red-eyed wattle’s seeds (black) with the elaiosome (pink) ( Acacia cyclops) (Autnor: Sydney Oats, flickr).

And the other type of seed dispersal by animals that establishes a mutualistic relationship occurs when the seeds or fruits are collected by the animal in times of abundance and then are buried as a food storage to be used when needed. As long as not all seed will be eaten, some will be able to germinate.

A squirrel that is recollecting som nuts (Author: William Murphy, flickr)

But this has not finished yet, since there are other curious and less well-known examples that have somehow made that both animals and plants can live together in a perfect “marriage.” Let’s see examples:

Azteca and Cecropia

Plants of the genus Cecropia live in tropical rain forests of Central and South America and they are very big fighters. The strategy that allow them to grow quickly and capture sunlight, avoiding competition with other plants, resides in the strong relationship they have with Azteca ants. Plants provide nests to the ants, since their stems are normally hollow and with separations, allowing ants to inhabit inside. Furthermore, these plants also produce Müllerian bodies, which are small but very nutritive substances rich in glycogen that ants can eat. In return, the ants protect Cecropia from vines and lianas, allowing them to success as a pioneer plants.

Ant Plants: CecropiaAzteca Symbiosis (

Marcgravia and Bats

Few years ago, an interesting plant has been discovered in Cuba. This plant is pollinated by bats, and it has evolved giving rise to modified leaves that act as satellite dish for echolocation performed by these animals. That is, their shape allow bats to locate them quickly, so they can collect nectar more efficiently. And at the same time, bats also pollinate plants more efficiently, as these animals move very quickly each night to visit hundreds of flowers to feed.

Marcgravia (Author: Alex Popovkin, Bahia, Brazil, Flickr)

In general, we see that the life of plants depends largely on the life of animals, since they are connected in one way or another. All the interactions we have presented are part of an even larger set that make life a more complex and peculiar one, in which one’s life cannot be explained without the other’s life. For this reason, we can say that life of some animals and some plants resembles a marriage.



  • Notes from the Environmental Biology degree (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) and the Master’s degree in Biodiversity (Universitat de Barcelona).
  • Bascompte, J. & Jordano, P. (2013) Mutualistic Networks (Chapter 1. Biodiversity and Plant-Animal Coevolution). Princeton University Press, pp 224.
  • Dansereau, P. (1957): Biogeography: an Ecological Perspective. The Ronald Press, New York., pp. 394.
  • Fenner M. & Thompson K. (2005). The Ecology of seeds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. pp. 250.
  • Font Quer, P. (1953): Diccionario de Botánica. Editorial Labor, Barcelona.
  • Izco, J., Barreno, E., Brugués, M., Costa, M., Devesa, J. A., Fernández, F., Gallardo, T., Llimona, X., Parada, C., Talavera, S. & Valdés, B. (2004) Botánica ªEdición. McGraw-Hill, pp. 906.
  • Murray D. R. (2012). Seed dispersal. Academy Press. 322 pp.
  • Tiffney B. (2004). Vertebrate dispersal of seed plants through time. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics. 35:1-29.
  • Willis, K.J. & McElwain, J.C. (2014) The Evolution of Plants (second edition). Oxford University Press, pp. 424.
  • National Geographic (2011). Bats Drawn to Plant via “Echo Beacon”.

Orchids: different colours and shapes for everyone

The orchid family is composed of a big number of species, about 20.000. Even they are almost around all world, the most live in tropical places and they are epiphytes, that is, they live over other plants. Nowadays, the number of the species is boosted by the commercial interest. Trying to find new characters and colours, many gardeners and hobbyists have created new varieties from the breeding of two distinct species of orchids, that is, they have made artificial hybridization. Even so, it can also happen in nature as usual.


The orchid flower owns a single structure. The most representative part is the column or gynostemium, which is the result of masculine and feminine reproductive parts combined. The perianth, consisting of the calyx (the outermost whorl of parts that form a flower. Its pieces are the sepals) and the corolla (composed of all of the petals), has free pieces and is zygomorphic (single symmetry plane). A much differentiated petal can be seen, it’s the lip. It adopts a different attractive shape and it can own macules (attractive spots for the pollinators). The lip is also adapted to capture the pollinators’ attention and can possess a long prolongation called spur and it has nectar. The flowers may be accompanied by a bract, a modified or specialized leaf.

parts orchidStructure of orchid flowers (Photo taken by Gisela Acosta).

The flower development is very singular in some orchids. Some flowers are born backwards and when they are maturing the ovary twist 180º to help flower stay in proper position, being the own ovary who acts as a peduncle, linking flower and stem. This kind of flower development is called resupinate. The flowers can be solitary or grouped in inflorescences.

orchis masculaResupinate development of flowers (Orchis mascula) (Photo taken by Jonathan Billinger).

The orchids are entomophilous, that is, are pollinated by insects. Depending of the specie, the orchid will be pollinated by a type of insect or other. Even so, this relation or form of pollination (the position in which bees, bumblebees and other hymenoptera get to copulate) cannot be used to describe how evolution happened in orchids; this pollination mechanism was used in the past to classify species, but molecular analyses have denied its worth.

One singular characteristic of tropical species is the velamen radicum: a multi-layered coating on the roots that acts as a sponge. In drought periods this coating protects from the drying and doesn’t allow the losing of water. And in rainy periods, this coating is swollen of water, which will be available to roots. Also, as these orchids are epiphytes, are adapted to drought places.

Pleione_limprichtii_Epiphytic orchid on a tree (Pleione limprichtii) (Photo taken by Adarsh Thakuri)

Orchids live in mutualism with fungus, that is, they establish a relationship in which both organisms are benefited when live together. The orchid seeds need the fungus’ aid to germinate. Many several fungus can stimulate their germination, but  Rhizoctonia (Basidiomycota) is predominant. The fungus degrades the seed coat and releases of dormancy period. Then, the seed begins to germinate and emits filaments, underground organs, and establishes an orchid mycorrhizae. The seed dormancy can last 20-30 years without germinating, but it will not be possible without the fungus action.


Within the great diversity of orchids, some flowers of diferent species create such original shapes that they seem animals, such as monkey orchid (Orchis simia), or insects, such as genus Phalaenopsis; their flowers supposedly resemble moths in flight, and that’s why they are known as the moth orchids.

Orchis simia & Phalaenopsis schillerianaOn the left, monkey orchid (Orchis simia) (Photo taken by Ian Capper); On the right, orchids that resemble moths in flight (Phalaenopsis schilleriana) (Photo taken by Amos Oliver Doyle).

The bee orchids (Ophrys), for example, have a specialized lip that can really attract the hymenopterans. It’s because it reminds female shape and colours and it also emits smells which are similar to female pheromones, doing the pollination more effective.

Ophrys apiferaBee orchid (Ophrys apifera) (Photo taken by Hans Hillewaert).

On the other hand, there are also many curious cases like the Darwin’s orchid (Anagraecum sesquipedale). It’s characterized by its long spur between 25 and 35 cm in length. Darwin guessed it should exist a butterfly that could take the nectar located in the spur and pollinates the flower at the same time. Xanthopan morgani is able and it’s the only one, so it’s one coevolution case.

Angraecum_sesquipedale & XanthopaOn the left, Darwin's orchid (Anagraecum sesquipedale)(Photo taken by Michael Wolf); On the right, Xanthopan morgani (Photo taken by Esculapio).

We can also see species with a high ornamental value, being the most of them from Asia and America. For example, the Cattleya genus has one of the highest floral value and it was used extensively for create new varieties. So, Cattleya has become very popular until today.  A good example is the easter orchid (Cattleya mossiae), which is also the national flower of Venezuela.

Cattleya mossiaeEaster orchid (Cattleya mossiae) (Photo taken by KENPEI).

When we speak of floral value, we can’t forget Rothschild’s slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum). It’s the most expensive orchid in world and it’s considered one of the most expensive flowers, too. Rothschild’s slipper orchid only lives in Mt. Kinabalu, on the island of Borneo, and it’s also one of the rarest orchids in nature of all of the species of Asian Slipper orchids.

Paphiopedilum_rothschildianum_Orchi_108Rothschild's Slipper Orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum) (Photo taken by Orchi).

Furthermore, orchids are important in alimentation, being surely Vanilla planifolia the most relevant. It’s native to Mexico and vanilla is obtained of its fruits.

Vanilla planifoliaVanilla (Vanilla planifolia) (Photo taken by Michael Doss).


The following sources have been consulted in the elaboration of this entry:

In conclusion, orchids are important in different aspects and that’s why a biggest knowledge of their diversity and biology is necessary. If you liked this article, wouldn’t forget to share it. Thanks for your interest.

Licencia Creative CommonsLicencia Creative Commons Atribución-NoComercial-CompartirIgual 4.0 Internacional.