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Rainforest Plant Adaptations & Types

Mary Ellise Schiffer, Amanda Robb
  • Author
    Mary Ellise Schiffer

    Mary Ellise has a M.S. in Environmental Science and Policy and a B.A. in Earth Systems Science from Clark University. She has taught science and writing to students in grades kindergarten through college.

  • Instructor
    Amanda Robb

    Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. She has a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. She is also certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

Discover what rainforests are and what kinds of plants live in this environment. Know about the most common plants in the rainforest and their adaptations. Updated: 03/03/2022

Rainforest Plants

The tropical rainforest is one of the main distinct biomes. Factors such as the climate and habitat of an area define the biome type. Other biomes include savanna, tundra, and temperate forest. The average temperature, precipitation, nutrient availability, and biodiversity vary between biomes.


Regions of wet tropical rainforest biome. The high temperatures needed for tropical rainforest conditions are found near the equator in regions of South America, Africa, India, SE Asia, and Northern Australia.

Map showing the regions of wet tropical rainforest.


Tropical rainforests are found near the equator in South America, Africa, India, SE Asia, and Northern Australia. The tropical rainforest biome is characterized by high precipitation and temperature and dense multi-layered canopies of vegetation with many types of rainforest trees, animals, and fungi. These characteristics create an environment conducive to high biodiversity. Biodiversity can be defined as the number of species in an area. An area with low biodiversity will not have many species or will have many of the same species.

What are tropical rainforest biome plants? The tropical rainforest biome is the most biodiverse place on earth, meaning there are many rainforest plants, animals, insects, fungi, and bacteria. Rainforest biomes cover just 6% of the Earth's surface but contain more than half of known plant and animal species. Surrounding the Amazon River, the Amazon rainforest in Brazil is the largest tropical rainforest globally, with 40,000 plant species, 1,300 bird species, 3,000 fish, nearly 500 mammals, and 2.5 million insects.


Tropical rainforests are known for dense vegetation. Diverse tropical rainforest biomes plants and animals can be found in all layers of the canopy.

Image of a variety of plant species at different heights in a small area.


What Is the Rainforest?

There's no place on Earth with more unique plants and animals than the tropical rainforest. This hot, humid biome gets over 200 inches of rain a year, creating the perfect conditions for biodiversity. Plants here aren't part of your typical forest. Brightly colored flowers, strangling trees, flesh eating flowers, and plants so large they might seem prehistoric cover the forest. Every plant has evolved unique adaptations, or physical features that help it survive in this dense jungle. During this lesson, we'll look at a sampling of some of the most unique plants in the tropical rainforest and their adaptations.

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  • 0:04 What Is the Rainforest?
  • 0:40 Carnivorous Plants
  • 1:10 Epiphytes
  • 2:07 Corpse Flowers
  • 3:20 Aquatic Plants
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Tropical Rainforest Plants Adaptations

In evolution, natural selection is survival of the fittest in the face of competition. Essentially, adapt or die. Those who survive can reproduce. In this way, favorable traits for survival and reproduction (adaptations) remain in the gene pool, while unfavorable traits are removed under natural selection. Unique tropical rainforest plant adaptations are an example of evolution involving natural selection.

With the high biodiversity of the rainforest comes competition. Tropical flora and fauna have adapted to survive in the face of increased competition and limited resources. Rainforest plants developed adaptations to obtain resources needed for photosynthesis and growth, such as light, water, and nutrients in the soil. Some plants that live in the rainforest have adapted to thrive in conditions with low nutrient and light availability. Unique tropical rainforest plants, including the pitcher plant, epiphytes, and corpse plants, have evolved to become respectively carnivorous, tree-dwelling, and stinky to better survive.


The pitcher plant is a carnivorous plant found in the tropical rainforest biome. Due to poor nutrient availability in the soil, the pitcher plant adapted a method to gain nutrients from insects instead.

Image of a pitcher plant.


Types of Plants in the Rainforest

What are tropical forest plants? There are various types of plants that live in the rainforests, some with notably unique adaptations. The main examples include carnivorous plants, epiphytes, corpse flowers, and aquatic plants.

Rainforest Carnivorous Plants

When faced with nutrient-poor soils in the rainforest, carnivorous plants adapted to gain nutrients from insects. The most famous tropical carnivorous plant is the pitcher plant. Pitcher plants lure insects with a sweet-smelling liquid that mimics that of flowers. The modified leaves of pitcher plants act as pitfall traps. The outer edge of the pitcher is slippery, so when insects land on the leaf, they fall in and become trapped. Digestive juices then absorb insects in the liquid.

Epiphytes

While most plants grow from the ground up, epiphytes are established in tree branches. Like the strangler fig, some extend their roots down to the ground. Others like the orchid have adapted roots that pull water rather than the soil from the air.

The strangler fig is a parasitic vining epiphyte that grows on another tree to reach the light. Roots from the strangler fig also descend to the ground and overtake the host tree's roots. Eventually, the strangler fig encases, or "strangles," the tree host, starving it of necessary light and nutrients. The hollow shells of dead trees encased by strangler figs provide important habitat for rainforest animals.


The strangler fig is a vining parasitic epiphyte that establishes on a tree branch, eventually reaching roots to the ground and encasing the entire tree.

Image of thick strangler fig vines wrapped tightly around a tree trunk.


A favorite of horticulturists, Orchidaceae is the largest family of flowering plants found mostly in the tropics and subtropics. Half of the 25,000 species of orchids are epiphytic. Unlike the strangler fig, orchids are less aggressive and much more delicate. Orchid roots have adapted to absorb water through the air rather than the soil. Additionally, orchids often require complex mycorrhizal relationships with fungi for germination, making the species especially sensitive to environmental changes.

Corpse Flowers

Other rainforest plants known as corpse flowers have adapted to attract pollinating decomposer insects such as flies attracted to foul-smelling substances such as feces and decomposing biota. The most famous examples are the main types of corpse flowers, Rafflesia arnoldii and titan arum. Although these two species are both considered corpse flowers, they are unrelated.

Carnivorous Plants

Although we normally think of insects eating plants, these plants have turned the table. Pitcher plants are carnivorous plants that trap insects in a sweet-smelling liquid that contains digestive juices within a pitcher. The insects are digested in the pitcher, and the plant can then absorb their nutrients. In the tropical rainforests of Borneo, Nepenthes species are prevalent. The soils here are nutrient poor, and so the pitcher plants have evolved a carnivorous lifestyle to get the nutrients they need to grow from insects.

The fanged pitcher plant is native to Borneo
fanged pitcher plant

Epiphytes

Instead of consuming insects, some plants take advantage of the hard work of other trees to survive. The strangler fig is an epiphyte, which is a plant that grows on another tree. The strangler fig encases the tree, growing down into the soil with it, eventually encasing the tree's roots entirely. Over time, the process will kill the host tree, leaving a skeleton of the strangler fig and a hollow center where the tree once was. Although this process might seem damaging to the forest, the hollow areas made by the strangler fig become important homes for animals of the rainforest.

A strangler fig grows around a host tree
strangler fig

The rainforest is host to thousands of orchid species. Many of these delicate flowers are endangered due to poaching and habitat destruction. Some orchid species are epiphytes, growing on trees instead of soil. One adaptation that helps with this lifestyle is their root structure. Orchid roots are covered in a spongy coating called the velamen. The covering helps them absorb water from the air instead of traditionally through roots in the soil.

Corpse Flowers

Picture getting a fresh-cut bunch of flowers. The beautiful scent of sunflowers, roses, and lilies fills your nose. However, not all flowers smell so nice. The Rafflesia flower is also known as the ''corpse flower'', and it's known as that for good reason. These giant flowers have the lovely adaptation of smelling like rotting flesh to attract flies for pollination. The flies come near the flower, thinking it's a decaying corpse. They inadvertently take away pollen as they come and go, helping the flower reproduce. The rafflesia flower has also evolved adaptations of reducing stems and leaves. It's a gigantic flower, measuring up to 40 inches across and weighing around 20 pounds.

The Rafflesia isn't the only smelly flower in the rainforest. The titan arum, growing in Sumatra, is one of the largest compound flowers, growing over 10 feet in some cases. The giant flower is made of two parts, a petal-like structure called a spathe, and the spiky flower structure, the spadix. This rotten smelling flower only blooms a few times in its lifetime. The putrid smell attracts beetles, much like the rafflesia flower. The beetles become trapped in the spathe, unable to escape until the petals are released days later. The beetles then leave, covered in pollen to spread to other flowers.

A titan arum grown in a conservatory
Titan arum

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Video Transcript

What Is the Rainforest?

There's no place on Earth with more unique plants and animals than the tropical rainforest. This hot, humid biome gets over 200 inches of rain a year, creating the perfect conditions for biodiversity. Plants here aren't part of your typical forest. Brightly colored flowers, strangling trees, flesh eating flowers, and plants so large they might seem prehistoric cover the forest. Every plant has evolved unique adaptations, or physical features that help it survive in this dense jungle. During this lesson, we'll look at a sampling of some of the most unique plants in the tropical rainforest and their adaptations.

Carnivorous Plants

Although we normally think of insects eating plants, these plants have turned the table. Pitcher plants are carnivorous plants that trap insects in a sweet-smelling liquid that contains digestive juices within a pitcher. The insects are digested in the pitcher, and the plant can then absorb their nutrients. In the tropical rainforests of Borneo, Nepenthes species are prevalent. The soils here are nutrient poor, and so the pitcher plants have evolved a carnivorous lifestyle to get the nutrients they need to grow from insects.

The fanged pitcher plant is native to Borneo
fanged pitcher plant

Epiphytes

Instead of consuming insects, some plants take advantage of the hard work of other trees to survive. The strangler fig is an epiphyte, which is a plant that grows on another tree. The strangler fig encases the tree, growing down into the soil with it, eventually encasing the tree's roots entirely. Over time, the process will kill the host tree, leaving a skeleton of the strangler fig and a hollow center where the tree once was. Although this process might seem damaging to the forest, the hollow areas made by the strangler fig become important homes for animals of the rainforest.

A strangler fig grows around a host tree
strangler fig

The rainforest is host to thousands of orchid species. Many of these delicate flowers are endangered due to poaching and habitat destruction. Some orchid species are epiphytes, growing on trees instead of soil. One adaptation that helps with this lifestyle is their root structure. Orchid roots are covered in a spongy coating called the velamen. The covering helps them absorb water from the air instead of traditionally through roots in the soil.

Corpse Flowers

Picture getting a fresh-cut bunch of flowers. The beautiful scent of sunflowers, roses, and lilies fills your nose. However, not all flowers smell so nice. The Rafflesia flower is also known as the ''corpse flower'', and it's known as that for good reason. These giant flowers have the lovely adaptation of smelling like rotting flesh to attract flies for pollination. The flies come near the flower, thinking it's a decaying corpse. They inadvertently take away pollen as they come and go, helping the flower reproduce. The rafflesia flower has also evolved adaptations of reducing stems and leaves. It's a gigantic flower, measuring up to 40 inches across and weighing around 20 pounds.

The Rafflesia isn't the only smelly flower in the rainforest. The titan arum, growing in Sumatra, is one of the largest compound flowers, growing over 10 feet in some cases. The giant flower is made of two parts, a petal-like structure called a spathe, and the spiky flower structure, the spadix. This rotten smelling flower only blooms a few times in its lifetime. The putrid smell attracts beetles, much like the rafflesia flower. The beetles become trapped in the spathe, unable to escape until the petals are released days later. The beetles then leave, covered in pollen to spread to other flowers.

A titan arum grown in a conservatory
Titan arum

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Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of plants live in the rainforest?

The tropical rainforest is the most biodiverse biome on earth. The Amazon Rainforest is home to over 40,000 plant species, many with unique adaptations. Due to dense vegetation, light and nutrient availability can be limiting factors for plants that live in the rainforest. Plants that live in the rainforest have evolved ways to survive in these crowded conditions.

What is the most common plants in the tropical rainforest?

Common tropical rainforest plants include many types of tropical trees, epiphytes that grow on trees, and groundcovers such as ferns and moss. Aquatic plants such as lilies and water hyacinths are also common. Orchids and corpse flowers are characteristic of the tropical rainforest but less common.

What are the adaptations of plants and animals in a tropical rainforest?

The tropical rainforest is the most biodiverse biome on earth. A high species density means plants and animals develop adaptations to survive and better reproduce. Some adaptations of tropical rainforest plants include becoming carnivorous like pitcher plants, tree-dwelling like epiphytes, and foul-smelling like corpse flowers.

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