Summary Aim Information on the community composition, structure, and dynamics of epiphyte vegetation is scarce. A survey of the epiphytes occurring on all individuals of one particular host tree species in a well-studied neotropical research site allowed us a comparison of the epiphyte flora of this tree with the local epiphyte flora, the analysis of spatial distribution patterns and the use of these patterns as indications for changes in time. In the future, our results can be used as a baseline data-set for the direct observation of the long-term dynamics in epiphyte communities. Location The study was conducted on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama. Methods We recorded all individuals of the vascular epiphytes growing on Annona glabra L., a flood-tolerant, multiple-stemmed tree, which is restricted to the shoreline of BCI. Data on tree biometrics, epiphyte species, and epiphyte abundances were collected for more than 1200 trees. Results In total, we encountered almost 15,000 epiphytic individuals in sixty-eight species, corresponding to more than one third of the entire epiphyte flora of Barro Colorado Island. The component species differed strongly in abundance: the four most important species accounted for >75% of all individuals. In most cases, the same four species were also the first to colonize a tree (=phorophyte). Colonization patterns indicated no replacement of early colonizers by late arrivals. Species richness and epiphyte abundances showed a positive correlation with the size and the density of the host trees. All species showed a highly clumped distribution and the physiognomy of epiphyte communities of individual trees was dominated either by one or several of the four most common species or by a set of frequently co-occurring tank bromeliads. Other species were dominant only in exceptional cases. Most species were always rare. A distance effect on community composition was mostly confined to a local scale with an increased similarity in the species assemblage of stems of a tree v. neighbouring trees. Main conclusions The epiphytes on a single small phorophyte species may encompass a surprisingly large proportion of the local epiphyte flora. The observations that most tree crowns are inhabited by a single or only very few species, and that all epiphyte species show highly clumped distributions suggest a predominance of very local dispersal within a tree crown, which is only infrequently interrupted by successful long-distance dispersal between crowns.