Cheating for a Place in the Sun

08 Apr

Epiphytes and Vines Have No Scruples

[Vocabulary help: An epiphyte (EPP-ah-fight) is a plant that grows sitting on another plant.  A so-called “airplant.”  Many aroids, bromeliads, ferns, lichens, liverworts, mosses, orchids, and others can be epiphytes.]


This morning John and George toiled way up high in the sun, on the Hobe Mountain (sand dune) tower in Jonathan Dickinson State Park working on a photo project.   While aloft it was impossible to ignore our similarity to plants perched likewise with a view:  epiphytes and vines.    We were human epiphytes.

tower view giraffe

Epiphyte-eye view, as seen from the JD Hobe Mountain Tower today

On the dune in the early morning there was perfume in the air.    Fragrance on a burned  sand dune with dead charred trees?   Yes, coming from flowering Cat Briar (Smilax) vines taking advantage of the bare tree skeletons to cover the limbs with replacement foliage, absorbing the orb using someone else’s  woody infrastructure.  That’s how vines roll.


Smilax repurposing dead tree.

In the event of fire, our Smilax auriculata dies back to a hunky rhizome to rise again…free of competition.   I like the fragrance of our Smilax, although the genus more broadly strikes some sniffers adversely.  Many Smilax species belong to “Section Coprosmanthus,” Latin for outhouse-flower.     Funny thing about Smilax, the individual vines are separately male (pollen producing) or female (fruit-making).    Weird, isn’t it, to “waste” individuals as making pollen but no fruits?    (But come to think of it I’m a wasted human making no babies.)  Perhaps in a massive vine making thousands of crowded flowers the sexual separation is necessary to force crossing where otherwise self-pollination would prevail.

Smilax auriculata 13

Smilax flowers

If you’re going to sprawl all over somebody else, too lazy to build a trunk, why not be even more lazy and quit photosynthesis?   That’s true of several vines, most notably our “Love Vine.”    It is the orange spaghetti all over other plants.   Love Vine sends little suckers into the flesh of its host to help itself to the host’s hard-earned sugary sap.

Some species start out as epiphytes (or as vines) but as their size and needs grow,  send roots to the ground.   Best of both worlds, start out unrooted (or a little rooted) to get going in the sun, and then plant roots with maturity.    This is like getting a car loan…secure the car first (treetop sunshine), then use the car to go to a job and settle down to pay it off (plant roots).  Around here, Strangler Fig is the famous case.  Also guilty can be Rose-Apple and Muscadine Grape.

A more felonious approach is for an otherwise epiphytic species to sink its “roots” right into the host.  Approaching this, a lot of plants grow in the natural flower pots formed by moist debris-filled cabbage palm leaf bases.    Little or no known penetration of the Cabbage Palm’s living flesh.   But  Mistletoe (introduced a little) burrows right on into its host Oak tree.    There’s evidence that it is not totally a taker though.    Instead, it seems to “give back” sugar from its own photosynthesis, although this needs more research.

Cecropia in palm

Golden Polypody Fern (top to the right), Cecropia (left with four big fingery leaves), Strangler Fig (far right), and Virginia Creeper (bottom) on Cabbage Palm

Most epiphytes develop their own special tricks for sitting up high and soil-less.    Their main problem is securing water and dissolved nutrients.  Many sidestep dry times by going into suspended animation when thirsty examples including mosses, lichens, liverworts, and resurrection fern.   These conduct business when wet.

Others capture and store rain water, stem wash, and mist.    Orchids have a covering, the velamen, on the roots.   Some have built-in rain barrels, most famously the “tank plant” bromeliads making a vase of their leaf bases.  A couple of these supplement their diet by adding carnivory to the tank, including one Florida native.

Most of our local Bromeliads, however, are tankless:  species of Tillandsia, including Spanish-Moss, Ball-Moss,” and many more, have a vesture of beautiful umbrella-shaped scales.  Water droplets catch under the scales, and suck into the plant through the central “trunk” of the scale.  Some Tillandsia Bromeliads and additional epiphytes offer living quarters for symbiotic ants in swollen puffy plant bases, or various hollow chambers.  The ants bring and create soil and manure, and certainly also provide guard duties.

Tillandsia recurvata CROPPED

Bromeliad scale under microscope

Who wants to see the pepper dance?  Non sequitor by PBSC student Ben Battat.


Posted by on April 8, 2016 in Uncategorized


9 responses to “Cheating for a Place in the Sun

  1. Annie Hite

    April 8, 2016 at 11:24 pm

    I could swear I’m seeing a giraffe in the first photo of your post!

    • George Rogers

      April 9, 2016 at 8:21 am

      I have no idea what you may have imagined…

  2. theshrubqueen

    April 9, 2016 at 8:27 am

    Yeah, that giraffe is freaking me out, too early, need more coffee – am going to go to my neighbors (has a beautiful Rose Apple) and look for signs of epiphytic epiphany!

  3. George Rogers

    April 9, 2016 at 9:40 am

    Maybe they put some beasts in the park to boost visitorship.

  4. theshrubqueen

    April 9, 2016 at 10:32 am

    or in the tower?

  5. George Rogers

    April 9, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Present feral company excluded…you should have seen some of the beauties and beasts who made the climb while we were there.

  6. theshrubqueen

    April 9, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    Snowbirds seeking flights home?

    • George Rogers

      April 9, 2016 at 10:08 pm

      Definitely Birdius newjerseyensis

      • theshrubqueen

        April 10, 2016 at 8:21 am

        Scary, at least on foot and not driving


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: