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