Hanging out

I don't do much.

This is according to my 9-year-old daughter. All I do is sleep, eat and exercise. I also watch football every day, all year long. I reminded her that football is only on five months out of the year. She said she knew that and that she still stands by what she said.

Basically, I'm a human epiphyte. In nature, epiphytes are plants that attach themselves to tree trunks, branches or rotting wood and just hang out, photosynthesizing and feeding themselves. I do, at times, attach myself to a couch and feed myself chips. I don't, however, photosynthesize.

Epiphytes often are referred to as air plants because they absorb moisture from the air through their leaves.

They do not harm their host. What my daughter doesn't realize is that epiphytes are hard at work, even though they don't look like it, and are an important component of the environment.

Lichens

Lichens are the green flaky things growing on tree trunks. They are complex organisms made of a fungus (sometimes a cynobacteria) and algae. A fungus cannot photosynthesize, so it cannot produce its own food. It gets food from other sources by decomposing organic matter or infecting living plants.

Algae, on the other hand, can photosynthesize. However, fungi form a symbiotic partnership of sorts with algae, in which both organisms benefit. Some sources describe the relationship as mutually parasitic. In other words, they get married.

Fungi get food from the algae and the algae, in return, receive water and nutrients from the fungi. Together, they are more equipped to deal with harsh growing conditions than they would be separately. Just like marriage.

Lichens can appear to be diabolical because there are more lichens on dying trees. They would be a prime suspect. A good detective, however, would discover there are more lichens on dying trees because there are fewer leaves and thus more light penetrating through the canopy. This allows lichens to photosynthesize more effectively, make more food and grow faster.

The tree is dying from something other than lichens. The lichens are just taking advantage of it. In nature, there's no crime in that.

Lichens aid in the decomposition of dead trees and other organic matter, returning nutrients back to the soil. In some species, lichens take nitrogen from the air and "fix" it so that it is available to plants, which contributes to soil fertility.

Spanish moss

Spanish moss needs no introduction. It's in every scenic picture of the South, dangling in gothic fashion from the branches of live oak and bald cypress. Its foliage is gray when it's dry; greenish when wet.

Some stories suggest the name Spanish moss comes from its likeness to Spanish settlers' beards. Other folklore suggests it gets its name from a Spanish woman who came with her fiance to Charleston to start a plantation. The story goes that Cherokee Indians killed her, cut her long, flowing hair and threw it into a live oak to warn other trespassers. Kind of creepy, huh?

Spanish moss is not really a moss; it's a flowering plant that lacks roots. It absorbs water and nutrients from rain and humidity through small scales on the leaves called trichomes. Trichomes are what give the foliage a gray appearance. During drought, it goes dormant.

At one time, Spanish moss was a popular material for stuffing mattresses. However, it's known for containing chiggers, the microscopic red bugs that leave nasty welts. Unsuspecting tourists learn this lesson the hard way when they bring Spanish moss home in their suitcases.

One source claims that chiggers will not inhabit Spanish moss until it touches the ground. I wouldn't take the chance. Reptiles are known to hide in clumps of Spanish moss, and birds use it for nesting material, which helps spread it from tree to tree. It's also used in floral arrangements.

In fact, people buy it (www.floridaspanishmoss.com).

Spanish moss does not harm the trees, although it does block sunlight and slows the tree's growth. On occasion, if it becomes too thick and unsightly, handpicking is sufficient.

Orchids, bromeliads

Orchids are the most striking epiphytes, and they have a devout following of hobbyists (see the S.C. Orchid Society at www.scoshome.com). The flowers are vivid and uniquely shaped. Tropical orchids, typically grown by hobbyists, attached to the uppermost branches in jungles. They can be purchased at some of the Lowcountry's garden centers. There are a few native orchids that grow in the Carolinas.

Orchids are very slow growing, and most don't flower until they are five to seven years mature. They can be taken outside during the summer, but will need to come inside for the winter.

Light is critical to these plants. Lack of flowers is often due to poor light quality or quantity. Indirect, bright light is ideal. Place them next to a window, but avoid drafts and move them away from the window during very cold weather. Artificial lights can be used to supplement poorly lit rooms.

Do not plant orchids in potting soil. Orchids should grow in orchid potting medium, osmunda fiber or pine bark for adequate drainage. The roots cannot tolerate being wet for a day or two. Watering schedules vary, but orchids will typically need to be watered once a week. Use an orchid-formulated fertilizer once a month.

Bromeliads are another favorite epiphyte with bright flowers, although they don't have the same dedicated following as orchids. Tillandsia is the most common propagated type of bromeliad.

Although Spanish moss is a Tillandsia, the bright flowering ones I'm referring to are a different species. They are often displayed on driftwood or limbs. The bases of the plants are glued and/or wired onto the mount. A good source for bromeliads is www.russellsairplants.com.

My daughter probably doesn't realize I'm pacing myself when I'm at home. I've been working hard to keep the refrigerator full and the heat working. That argument, however, never has much impact on a 9-year-old.

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback or request specific column topics, e-mail Tony at tony.bertauski@tridenttech.edu.