‘Hemiepiphyte’: a confusing term and its history

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Background and Scope

Over more than 120 years of scientific study since Schimper's seminal work, the recognized categories of structurally dependent plants have changed several times. Currently, ignoring parasitic mistletoes, it is usual to distinguish four functional groups: (1) true epiphytes; (2) primary hemiepiphytes; (3) secondary hemiepiphytes; and (4) climbing plants, i.e. lianas and vines. In this Viewpoint, it is argued that the term secondary hemiepiphytes (SHs) is misleading, that its definition is hard to impossible to apply in the field and, possibly causally related to this conceptual problem, that the use of this category in field studies is inconsistent, which now hampers interpretation and generalization.


Categories will frequently fail to capture gradual biological variation, but terms and concepts should be as unambiguous as possible to facilitate productive communication. A detailed analysis of the conceptual problems associated with the term SH and its application in scientific studies clearly shows that this goal is not fulfilled in this case. Consequently, the use of SH should be abandoned. An alternative scheme to categorize structurally dependent flora is suggested.

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