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Plants in the Canopy Layer of the Rainforest

Updated February 21, 2017

The tropical rainforest is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species, many of which exist nowhere else on earth. The thick tree canopy prevents many plants from reaching the sunlight they need to grow, creating a dark area with little vegetation around the tree roots. Several types of plants have adapted to live in the canopy itself, either climbing existing rainforest trees to reach the light or living in the treetops entirely.

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Orchids make up one of the largest, most varied flowering plant families, with over 20,000 known species. Orchids are very common in tropical regions, where most species are epiphytes, plants that spend their whole lives living on another plant. These flowers grow non-parasitically on trees, absorbing water from rain and tree cavities, and drawing energy from the sunlight that reaches through the canopy. They attract moths and flies to fertilise their flowers.


Hemiepiphytes begin their lives in the canopy, similar to epiphytes, but over the course of their lives, they slowly grow roots down to the ground. Dry conditions in the canopy mean this process takes a long time, but once roots reach the soil, these plants start growing more quickly. They may then harm their host tree. For instance, the strangler fig, a vinelike member of the fig family, tends to slowly surround its host tree, suffocating it. The host tree dies and decays, leaving a hollow-centred strangler growing in its place.

Lianas, Vines and Creepers

Lianas, vines and creepers all start their lives on the ground in a shrublike shape or crawling along as a vine. However, once they reach a nearby tree trunk, these plants change their growth structure and ascend into the canopy to seek out light. These plants keep their roots in the soil, and never draw nutrients from the tree. However, their ascent into the canopy can cause problems for the host tree. Their weight and climbing habits can eventually kill the tree that supports them. According to Monga Bay, these plants contribute to tree mortality in the rainforest, and keep this habitat diverse.


Like orchids, bromeliads are a type of ephiphyte. They spend their whole lives in the rainforest canopy, their roots never touching the ground. These pineapple relatives have waxy, thick leaves that create a bowl shape. Bromeliads capture water for later use, and often provide homes for aquatic and semi-aquatic canopy creatures, including frogs, salamanders, snails, mosquito larvae and beetles. The large tank bromeliad can hold over two gallons of water, and is often used as a tadpole nursery by frogs.

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About the Author

G.D. Palmer is a freelance writer and illustrator living in Milwaukee, Wis. She has been producing print and Web content for various organizations since 1998 and has been freelancing full-time since 2007. Palmer holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in writing and studio art from Beloit College in Beloit, Wis.

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