cactus pictures Chasing the Wild Epis

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Chasing the Wild Epis

epiphylum cactus on tree While browsing another website to get some pointers on growing "epis", I ran into to some interesting comments. Several posters were stating their ideas of growing conditions in the "rainforest" to give them some ideas as to how to care for their plants. Nice approach, but the obvious problem is that the whole tropics is not composed of rainforest and isn't entirely on the equator!

Nicaragua, for example, has many ecosystems, but tropical humid forest is but a small part of the country, mostly in the far southeast. The northeast is mostly savannah, the northern mountains are tropical oak forest, and much of the west is tropical dry forest. Soil types, rain, humidity, and sunlight vary in the extreme between these areas, and these are only a few of the ecosystems.

epi cactus cloud forest     Epis on a river bank

The first wild epis I found were near where I live in mid-elevation (850 Meters) dry forest. The climate is moderate, with most days in the 70s and 80s Fahrenheit, and most nights in the 60s and 70s. UV radiation can be intense. In this ecosystem, most rain falls from May to November, often in light showers but sometimes in heavy rains that last for days. Localized flooding is common during the heavy rains. The dry season is from November to May and will often have fairly high humidity but no rain. So, in simple terms, you have half a year of jungle and half a year of desert. Day length also varies from summer to winter, but not as much as in the more northerly parts of North America. The native plants are well adapted to this climate, although many would never thrive in the heat and humidity of lower elevation humid forest, the "rainforest".

The plants in question were growing with their roots in the ground, but the plants clambering over large boulders. They were in heavy shade because there are also trees growing in among the rocks. Almost always, there are also split-leaf philodendrons growing with them.

Epi cacti on a pine tree

The soil type is a very heavy black clay mixed with rocks, certainly not what you would put in your hanging baskets. The epis survive in their little niche, the boulders probably protection them from rot and the trees protecting them from the sun. The philodendrons just happen to like the same niche.

The next epi I found was growing on a dead tree in full sun, which seemed strange on two accounts. Dead trees are a rare occurrence because usually they would be chopped down for lumber or firewood and full sun seemed a strange location for an epi. Well, when I came back during the rainy season at least half of the mystery was solved: the epis were covered with herbaceous vines and were no longer in full sun. These plants also appeared to be rooted in the ground and using the tree for support.

Finally, one day I was talking to a restaurant owner about an epi in his garden, later identified as E. oxypetalum, and he told me of some other plants on a nearby hill. There I found, in a little patch of tropical oak-pine forest, commonly called "cloud forest", what appear to be two different species growing on two different trees. Again, they had their little niche. Had they been 20 to 50 meters away in any direction they would have been out of the shade and would probably not have survived. This area is at about 1500 M and is often cool and damp, very different from where I found the other epis. Both of these specimens seemed to be growing completely in the trees with no roots in the soil.

Although I have been a lifetime cactus hobbyist, before encountering these plants I had zero experience with any epiphyllum. They became a source of frustration when I realized that they cannot be identified without seeing the flowers and fruits, and timing it just right to see this in the wild is nearly impossible. They bloom at night, and in some cases only one night a year, and access during the rainy season can be problematic. So recently I have redesigned my project on a more methodical basis. I am back tracking to all my epi sites (9 at last count) and am taking pictures, gps readings, and cuttings. With a little luck, within 2 years or so the new plants should flower and be identifiable. With species that grow quickly from cuttings or seeds, this is the only way to proceed.

The surplus plants I can then donate to a local zoo and botanical garden who are interested in native plants with proper scientific name and habitat location. I am also working with foreign and domestic botanists on this project. The advantage that an amateur naturalist such as myself has is that I live here and can check on the plants all year round, and digital cameras and the internet really make the process easier. One can only think of people like Darwin and Cook who sent samples home by sailing ship and had to wait months or years to find out if their samples arrived, were properly investigated, and amounted to anything.

I am also growing out one type of Hylocereus in my yard to identify it, and a friend has given me a location for a wild Disocactus, so my little science project will spread out to more than just Epiphyllum. There are at least a dozen species listed for Nicaragua that I have not yet identified, plus an unknown number of others that are not listed just because no one has documented them here.

Epi cactus growing area

My shade house is due for an expansion!

Author: Leland Smith
Index of Articles
Introductory and Naming
     Wherefore Art Thou Cactaceae?
     How to Write a Scientific Name Correctly
     Cacti & Succulent Identification
     Cereus Peruvianus -The Least and Best Known Cactus
     More About Cereus Peruvianus

Cultivation and How-To
     The Sun Burned Cacti
     Grafting on Pereskiopsis
     Making Your Own Cactus Soil
     Growing NON-Hardy Cacti in Cold Climates
     Tools of the Trade
     Growing Cactus with Artificial Light
     Making a Hypertufa Planter
     Cactus Flowers - Fake or Real?
     How-To-NOT Build a Cactus Terrarium
     Raising Cactus From Seed
     Growing Cacti in Terracotta

     Is Cultivation Conservation?
     Interview: Cactus Conservation in Paraguay with Alex Arzberger
     The Fate of the Minnesota Ball Cactus

     A Cactus Odyssey in Arizona
     Mangrove Cactus
     Have a Cup of Cactus
     Opuntia as an Invasive Species in Australia
     The Creating of "Springtime Succulence"
     Making Botanical Illustrations
     Adapt or Perish
     Chasing the Wild Epis
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