Species Orchid Society of

Western Australia (Inc)


Lepanthes - An Intriguing Genus

By Ken Jones

I spent some time researching this interesting, but seldom grown (at least in Australia) species. The genus Lepanthes consists of more than 800 species and occurs from Mexico through the West Indies, Central America and South America. Generally dwarf, creeping rhizome epiphytes or lithophytes, these diminutive plants are mostly found low in the forest, most often living in moss beds, in conditions that range from hot to cool.

In this context, it might be helpful to clarify what these terms mean. Hot is generally accepted to mean a minimum of 18ºC with a minimum daily lift of 6ºC, intermediate is minimum of 15ºC with a minimum daily lift of 6ºC while cool is minimum of 12ºC. In the cloud forests, the diurnal variation is often less than 2-3ºC

What makes these plants desirable to passionate collectors who are prepared to take the trouble to replicate the environment in which they grow are the ornate and beautiful (but tiny ) flowers. Often, the foliage is of velvety appearance and attractively mottled.

The type species is Lepanthes concinna, however this is shown as an illegal name and is more correctly described as Lepanthes ovalis. The genus was first described by O Swartz in 1799. Most authors say that this genus is not well understood or described, and there are several articles on the web about newly discovered species. For a genus first described over 200 years ago, at first glance this is surprising. However, the diminutive nature of these plants, the short lived flowers, taxonomically diverse foliage appearance, narrowly defined and highly localised endemism and often inaccessible habitats are the most obvious explanations. This genus largely flowers all year round.

Three new species were discovered in Costa Rica in 2009 by a team from the Lankester Botanical Garden and written up in the online publication Lankesteriana (vol 9:3) http://www.lankesteriana.ucr.ac.cr/lankesterianaDOWNLOADS.html. If you are interested in Central and South American botanical species, this is an excellent, free publication.

While the type species is Lepanthes ovalis from Jamaica (and north-eastern Venezuela) I was unable to find anything more than very basic information about this species. It is a miniature, caespitose, unifoliate, hot growing epiphytic species at low elevations. One interesting observation about this species is that it has the ability to survive for long periods in warm, dry surroundings. It flowers progressively on a short fascicle lying on top of the broad leaf as shown in the picture on the left.




You will recall that I mentioned Lepanthes telipogoniflora last month. The flower closelyresembles that of a Telipogon species, and this species was only identified in 1996. Lepanthes telipogoniflora is found in Colombia at low altitudes growing in moss beds. While the photo (right) is not in-situ, it illustrates how this diminutive species grows.







It also demonstrates just how diminutive this species is. If we want to grow these plants well, I suspect that we will need to be able to maintain live sphagnum moss (this is a common aspect of the genus, and of the companion species that are often found growing in close proximity). Another feature of this genus is that often, the flat flowers are brightly coloured in contrast with other genera in the subtribe Pleurothallidinae which are more often green, yellow or brown.



Lepanthes guatemalensis is found in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador as a warm to cool growing epiphyte at moderate elevations. The in situ photo following shows it growing on a rough barked tree that the plant's roots are able to cling to and to extract nutrients that wash down from above. The flowers (approx 10mm) are one quarter of the plant size (approx 40mm).






Lepanthes calodictyon is another species in this vegetatively diverse genus. With its large, attractively mottled leaves, this species is from Western Colombia and Ecuador where it is found in wet montane (mist) forests as a miniature sized, warm to hot growing epiphyte at low to moderate elevations. It flowers progressively on short fascicles at any time of the year. This cultivated plant is growing in live sphagnum moss.



Lepanthes eltoroensis is another miniature epiphyte found growing on moss-covered trunks of upper-elevation forests in the Luquillo Mountains of eastern Puerto Rico. These forests are primarily sierra palm, palo colorado, and dwarf forest at elevations higher than 850 m (all known locations of this species are within the Caribbean National Forest). It has been reported on several species of trees, all supporting abundant mosses and liverworts. The relative humidity in these forests ranges from 90-100%, and cloud cover is continuous during evening hours and the majority of the day. Annual rainfall is 123-177 in (313-450 cm.


The extreme rarity of this orchid makes the loss of even one individual critical. It has been reported that collecting eliminated a previously known population in the sierra palm forest. Even in the Caribbean National Forest, forest management practices such as the establishment and maintenance of plantations, selective cutting, trail maintenance, and shelter construction may affect these orchids. Hurricane Hugo devastated the Caribbean National Forest, creating microclimatic conditions unfavourable for Lepanthes eltoroensis by opening numerous canopy gaps in the major area of the known populations.
Lepanthes eltoroensis. Photo by Raymond Tremblay.
Source: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/rareplants/profiles/tep/lepanthes_eltoroensis/index.shtml

For great pictures of Lepanthes, see