Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Epiphyte Tree at UConn Greenhouses
One of the big events this past fall here at the University of Connecticut greenhouses has been the completion of an epiphyte tree in the entryway, which had previously been somewhat cramped and lacking in focus. The new entryway provides space for tours to assemble, and a point of interest to draw visitors in.
Epiphytes are plants that live on the surface of other plants, using their hosts for support but not acting as parasites. About the only epiphytes that occur naturally here in Connecticut are tiny mosses and liverworts that grow on tree trunks, but in tropical climates trees may be festooned with diverse communities of orchids, bromeliads, ferns and others.
The UConn epiphyte tree was put together over the summer, with many hours of volunteer help from the Connecticut Orchid Society. It is constructed around a skeleton of steel pipes clamped together into a hexagonal trunk, with additional pipes jutting out above head level to create branches. The trunk is covered with panels of expanded metal, which do a good job of rounding out the angular underlying structure. All of the basic structural materials were recycled from old bench parts from the greenhouses.
Probably the most time-consuming part of the construction of the epiphyte tree was covering it with bark. We used natural cork oak bark, which is harvested—sustainably, without killing the trees—in the western Mediterranean region. The C.O.S. and greenhouse manager Clint Morse laboriously fit pieces of bark together, sometimes cutting them to fit or softening them with steam in a large autoclave to mold them into the right shape, then wired them in place. Gaps were filled in with slivers of bark glued in place, or clumps of coconut fiber. The branches of the epiphyte tree were covered with special ordered bark tubes (taken whole from smaller cork oak trunks).
Some of the initial plantings were done as the bark was being fit into place, using epiphytes already established on pieces of cork. More plants were wired or glued into place later, and these should anchor themselves and spread with time. We’re still working on fine-tuning the tree and its plantings, but stop in and check it out if you’re in the area!