Garden in the Sky

Friday, March 18, 2022

To enjoy some of our most distinct collections, look overhead.

Stop. Look up. Repeat. Much of Naples Botanical Garden exists overhead, entwined in the trunks and branches of trees, climbing arbors and trellises, reaching toward the sun.

We think of it as a “sky garden,” this collection of epiphytic plants and vines. Unique to the tropics and subtropics, these plants are among our most defining features and help give the Garden its trademark look — lush, abundant, multilayered, a little untamed.

Vines are like the aerial highways of the jungle, a means for canopy-dwellers such as primates, toucans, and sloths to move about their habitat.

“It’s the network that holds everything together,” says Director of Collections Nick Ewy. “The vining plants are interwoven, binding all the plants together.”

Epiphytes, which include some vines, are plants that grow without soil. They pull water and nutrients through other mechanisms, including aerial roots, special structures called pseudobulbs, and tiny hair-like coverings, known as trichomes.

You might think trees are suffocating under the weight and pressure of all of those plants. But epiphytes are not parasites. Instead, they and the plants on which they live co-exist peacefully — sometimes even mutually benefitting one another. The word “epiphyte” comes from the Greek, “epi,” upon, and “phyton,” plant.

“They are completely interwoven on the tree,” says Vice President of Horticulture Brian Galligan. “You look at a tree in the Amazon, and there’s a whole network growing up it.” Epiphytes are foreign to those who hail from temperate and cold climates, where they typically are limited to mosses and lichens. In the tropics, however, many familiar ground-dwellers, including orchids, bromeliads, cacti, ferns, and vines, have epiphytic forms.

A single tree in the Garden might host several epiphytic species. Ewy counts at least seven on one particularly hospitable verawood (Bulnesia arborea) outside Kapnick Hall, a combination of ferns, bromeliads, and orchids. Enter the LaGrippe Orchid Garden, and the number and diversity of epiphytic species is simply too high to count.

“It’s such a significant part of the guest experience,” Galligan says. So, let’s tilt up our chins, and explore the aerial Garden. 


Some gardens “paint” their landscapes in flowers. We like annual flower displays, of course. But we’re better known for showcasing color at eye level, creating an element of surprise as you round a bend, and find yourself face-to-petal with a sprig of blooms.

Vanilla orchid

Usually, these are orchids, and for good reason: Epiphytic varieties abound. Bulbophyllum alone has 1,500 epiphytic species, the most out of the Orchidaceae family. Phalaenopsis orchids — beloved for their color — boast 83.

We’ll call your attention to one unusual orchid — distinct because it is semi-epiphytic (it starts in the ground but later may detach), and because it produces one of the world’s most ubiquitous flavorings.

Vanilla beans come from the vanilla orchid, a vining plant that produces seed pods. The curing process gives them their one-of-a-kind flavor. We grow numerous species, including Vanilla planifolia, the type most often used in cooking. You can find vanilla vines on the trellis behind the Pastore Family Caribbean House in the Kapnick Caribbean Garden and scattered throughout the campus on trees, including a mahogany in the Kapnick Brazilian Garden, a soapberry tree in the Caribbean Garden, and a raintree in front of the Orchid Garden. Vanilla blooms in spring and early summer.


Speaking of vines, we can’t fathom how many photos of our vines have wound up on guests’ social media feeds — especially the queen’s wreath (Petrea volubilis) and sky vine (Thunbergia grandiflora) adorning the Caribbean Garden pergola.

Vines abound within Irma’s Garden at the Chabraja Visitor Center. They include: jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys), New Guinea trumpet vine (Tecomanthe dendrophila), Indian clock vine (Thunbergia mysorensis), Medusa flower (Strophanthus preussii) and an unusual Chinese hat plant (Holmskioldia sanguinea f. citrina) that blooms yellow instead of its typical red.

Jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys)

Towering over the Visitor Center is the Bauhinia aureifolia, with golden leaves that gleam in the sun. As if those flowering vines aren’t exotic enough, we have a couple of palm trees that behave like vines. They’re rattan, the tubular, furniture-making material. Rattan includes 13 genera and 600 species. Most originate in Southeast Asia, though they are found in other parts of the tropical world as well.

Like a vine, rattans grow slender and supple. Thousands of tiny, razor-sharp hooks allow them to latch on to other trees and amble toward the sun, sometimes stretching hundreds of feet. Fear not! We keep them well out of visitor pathways (one is tucked behind the ruins in the Lea Asian Garden). But pity the poor horticulturists who tend them!


Many epiphytic ferns have a neat adaptation in which their fronds capture debris — sticks, leaves, dust, dirt — and harbor rainwater.

“It forms like a mini compost pile,” Ewy explains. This debris not only nourishes the epiphyte, but it also provides habitat to ants and other insects, which in turn, carry in more nutrients. Two examples are bird’s nest ferns (Asplenium nidus) and staghorn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum).

Staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum)

Bird’s nest ferns are often sold as houseplants, but in the wild, they implant themselves high up in trees. Extended, often crinkly, fronds emerge from a central rosette.

Staghorn ferns are majestic, oversized plants that upstage their hosts with fronds that resemble deer or elk antlers. The plant consists of shield fronds, small, flat leaves that collect the nutrients, and the antler-shaped ones that can grow to 3 feet or more.


We love the interconnectedness of epiphytes and trees (the Garden’s 2021–22 theme is “Intertwined”), but to examine an even more complex interdependence, we look to the Myrmecophytes, otherwise known as “ant plants.” Ant colonies make their homes in them. The plants and insects even feed each other. Many ant plant species produce “extrafloral nectaries,” specialized nectar-secreting glands that feed the ants. Ants carry in materials from the forest floor that provide nutrients to the plants, and further nourish them through waste products, such as excrement and decaying material in their nests.

Ewy points out one such specimen, Myrmecophila brysiana, located just beyond the Smith Entry Prow at the Visitor Center.

“They have these fat pseudobulbs, but they’re all hollow,” he says. “If you look at the bottom, there’s a little opening that the ants enter in and out of. They end up developing huge ant colonies.” In exchange for providing housing, the ants protect and defend the plant from anything that could disturb it, such as leaf- and bud-munching insects or plants that encroach on the plant’s space and threaten to smother it.


The rainforest may be the last place you imagine cacti, but there are species that love wet and humid as much as other branches of their family savor hot and dry.

One example is Strophocactus wittii, found in the shadows of Kathryn’s Garden. The cactus originates in the Amazon and is perfectly adapted to its wet/dry cycle.

Epiphytic seeds tend to be windblown or consumed by wildlife and spread in excrement. Not these. The heavy seeds drop to the forest floor and float in rainy season floodwaters. As the water evaporates, they latch onto the side of a tree, germinate, and climb their new host.

Another is Rhipsalis, a very un-cactus-like plant that looks like a thicket of wild grass. No spines here! Instead of prickers, this species blooms greenish-white flowers and produces white seeds that look like pearls. You can see Rhipsalis along the lakeside trail in the Preserve.


Look down, and you’ll see swaths of bromeliads lining the winding pathway through the Kapnick Brazilian Garden. Look up, and you’ll see these tropical plants adding pops of color and texture to the trees. One can’t-miss specimen is the Aechmea floribunda, an enormous bromeliad living high in the branches of a silk floss tree at the base of the Brazilian Garden.

A particularly interesting epiphytic bromeliad is Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides). Synonymous with the South, this plant’s long, silvery tendrils drape from tree branches. It is entirely misnamed, however. As a bromeliad, Tillandsia usneoides is more closely related to pineapples than it is to moss. (The name has a few origin stories: One that the French dubbed the plant “Spanish beard,” and over time, it became known as “Spanish moss.”)

Air nourishes the plant, which absorbs moisture and nutrients carried on dust particles. Spanish moss used to have industrial uses, as a material in upholstery for cars, furniture, and mattresses. Synthetic fibers rendered that use obsolete, but the animal and insect worlds rely heavily on the plant. The tangled masses make homes for various species of insects, bats, frogs, snakes, and spiders. They also make excellent bird nest material.

So, slow down. Look up. And take in all of what Naples Botanical Garden has to offer. As Galligan reminds us, “If you beeline somewhere, you’ll miss all this!”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Cultivate.

About the Author

Jennifer Reed is the Garden’s Editorial Director and a longtime Southwest Florida journalist.


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