By Mary Honrud
For the Courier 

Parasitic vs Epiphytic Plants


January 8, 2020

Mary Honrud / For the Courier

While visiting in Florida, I came across Spanish moss on a tree.

We are in sunny Florida, visiting our middle daughter and her family. Don't be jealous. While it's sunny (for the most part - we did see lots of rain Saturday) and green, we're still experiencing some cold. But this cold is man-made. Our grandsons all play ice hockey. Maintaining ice here means lots of cold.

The youngest grandson is seven. He is both a player and a goalie. In his jamboree yesterday, he only played goalie. He had four games, 20 minutes each, in Ellenton, spread over the entire morning. The middle grandson mostly plays defense, but has been known to score. He's nine. We'll get to see him play in a tournament next weekend, in Daytona. They're all on "traveling" teams. The oldest is 17 and was playing in Boston this weekend. We watched him via broadcast from the comfort and warmth of the living room. We will get to see him "live" in Fort Myers at some point during this visit.

While on a dog-walking stroll through the neighborhood, I took note of the Spanish moss and another epiphytic plant on the trees lining the neighborhood trees. I couldn't remember that word, epiphytic, so I did a little research.

I'd always thought of Spanish moss as a parasite, but it turns out I thought wrong. The differences are that parasitic plants use the host plant directly to survive. They have modified roots called haustoria that grow into the host. Some roots will penetrate the xylene to extract water rising from the roots. Some will penetrate the phloem to extract food the host has photosynthesized on its way down to the roots.

Epiphytic plants are truly "air" plants that grow on the surface of their host plant. They'll collect water and food from the surrounding air, from rain or fog, and from the debris that collects around them. They're usually in the tree's canopy so they can get sunlight for photosynthesis. Debris will be deposited up there by wind and passing birds. Most epiphytic plants exist in moist tropical areas, although there is a type in the desert southwest of the states.

Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant. Hemi means half, so mistletoe doesn't fully rely on its host. There are hundreds of types of mistletoe. Dodder (morning glory) is a holoparasitic plant, which means it gets all its support from the host. Successful parasites don't kill their host, but it does happen.

Other epiphytic plants are mosses, orchids, and bromeliads.

Spanish moss has been used in building insulation, mulch, as packing material, mattress stuffing and fiber. In the early 1900s it was used as car seat padding. It's also used in arts and crafts and as bedding for flower gardens. So what I'd thought of as just a pest plant is actually useful.

Mary Honrud / For the Courier

Another epiphytic plant on the local trees in Riverside, Fla.


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