Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Acting like an epiphyte

with 13 comments

A post about ball moss last November mentioned that an epiphyte is a plant that regularly grows on another plant or an object for physical support but isn’t a parasite of its host. Another example of an “air plant” is the Spanish moss that appeared in these pages on March 1, 2012.

Occasionally a plant that isn’t inherently an epiphyte can act like one, as you see in this photograph of a prickly pear cactus, Opuntia engelmannii, that had somehow taken root in the cleft of a venerable live oak tree, Quercus fusiformis, a good 10 or 12 feet above the ground. I should add that this specimen is an atypical cactus in a second way: like a prickly pear that I showed last year at the edge of a cliff, this one’s pads were growing primarily downward.

As was true for yesterday’s picture, this one dates from August 31, 2012, at the Doeskin Ranch, a nature preserve in Burnet County about an hour northwest of Austin. And no, I didn’t climb the tree to photograph the cactus: the prickly pear looks closer than it was because I used a telephoto lens while keeping my feet prudently on the ground. I’m afraid my days of tree climbing are decades in the past.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 16, 2013 at 6:10 AM

13 Responses

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  1. I’ve always enjoyed finding plants growing in the trees. It reminds me of jungle! Also, I am glad to see your comment about Spanish Moss. When I was visiting Becca I had asked her if she had seen any in the area and she had not. I thought there should be some growing in the area! I will need to seek out a colony when I come in May. This is another plant that stirs up magical memories.

    Bonnie Michelle

    January 16, 2013 at 6:59 AM

    • Yes, the jungles of Texas, and I’m their fearless explorer.

      The place where I took the picture of the Spanish moss is in south Austin and therefore not all that far from where Becca lives. I can be more specific about the location when you visit in May.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 16, 2013 at 9:32 AM

  2. An interesting cacti. I’m glad you keep your feet firmly on the ground. I’d hate to have you fall, break something, and be permanently ‘grounded.’


    January 16, 2013 at 3:45 PM

    • I hope I stay well grounded in a good way and don’t have nature punish me for my exploits.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 16, 2013 at 4:03 PM

  3. Now that is interesting for sure. Just proves how tenacious a cactus can be — that really is a good find.


    January 16, 2013 at 9:33 PM

  4. What a surprise, to see a cactus in a tree! I have found similar examples of plants acting like epiphytes in the woods at Illinois Beach State Park. It livens up a walk!


    January 17, 2013 at 12:13 PM

    • Seeing a cactus up in a tree certainly livened up my walk that day. I’m glad to hear you’ve found examples of that sort of thing near you, too.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 17, 2013 at 1:23 PM

  5. I was surprised to see that downward-growing cactus anchored on the cliff – and now this one! I’ve never seen such a thing. This one certainly looks healthy, but prickly pear are among the toughest plants I know. I knocked a pad off my spineless cactus when I was moving it around about five months ago. It’s just lying there, waiting to move up on my to-do list, and it looks fine. Dormant, I suppose. In another month I’ll stick it in a pot of dirt and let it get back to the business of growing.


    January 18, 2013 at 7:28 AM

    • I’m wondering if the lack of normal support of the ground surrounding the plant is what leads to the pads growing downward. In other words, maybe many prickly pear plants would do that if the ground weren’t there to intervene the way it normally is.

      I’ve also noticed how hardy these pads are, even in isolation. I’ve seen a separated pad anchor itself to the ground and keep on living.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 18, 2013 at 8:51 AM

  6. Crazy! Here in the soggy Pacific Northwest there are plenty of things growing in tree crotches, including plenty of trees taking root, but this is really amazing – a tough environment for a tough old prickly pear.


    January 28, 2013 at 4:00 PM

    • We should trade places for a while: from what you say and from pictures I’ve seen, I’d enjoy photographing in your lush greenery. Texas can be a harsh place, but there are still plenty of photographic rewards, some expected and some un-.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 28, 2013 at 4:06 PM

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