Cultivating dwarf cyclanths: the right-sized "palms" for home and terraria?
Palms in terraria?
And just what is a "cyclanth"?
Good questions. While cyclanths are indeed monocots just like their well-known occasional lookalikes the palms, they are quite unrelated and are in fact part of the Pandanales. Being in this rather obscure Order puts them in the same group as the somewhat more familiar Old World screw-pines or pandans. Ubiquitous residents of shaded areas in warm, wet forests throughout the New World tropics, cyclanths have long been ignored by ornamental horticulture. The first monograph on the family, published 60 years ago, cited only 20 species of cyclanths in cultivation at that time, most of which were in the collection at RBG Kew in England. Some of this lack of interest by horticulture can be attributed to a continuing scarcity of living material available to growers, although this is now changing. Then there is the bewildering similarity of a number of the terrestrial genera/species, many of which are near lookalikes that defy determination unless one is a specialist lucky enough to find them flowering. Finally, cyclanth seed is tiny, notoriously fragile and very short-lived, as well as rather tricky to germinate.
Just how unfamiliar are they to most growers? An acquaintance, a very well-respected plantsman who curates one of the world’s largest tropical plant collections, has chosen cyclanths as a medal winner in his, “Plants without Fan Clubs” category. Over the years I have had any number of otherwise knowledgeable orchid, bromeliad and succulent collectors come up blank when I show them my plants at the greenhouse. Palm growers are forever confusing some of them with – here's a shocker – palms, prompting the occasional wild goose chase by collectors following reports in the Neotropics of a strange-looking new palm species that when finally encountered turns out be not a palm at all, but rather a cyclanth.
The Cyclanthaceae is by no means some tiny, obscure plant family, although they do have relatively few researchers working with them. There are currently about 240 species known from a dozen genera. Given their similarity in the field and patterns of local endemism, it is probable that this list will be increased significantly over the next few years. Centers of diversity are located in the wet forests located at lower and middle elevations of Costa Rica-Panamá, Colombia to Perú and western Brazil. Several species occur at higher elevations, including a couple interesting ones that manage to eke out an existence above the treeline in Andean páramo. Fibers from a few species are used to make Panama hats in Ecuador (where, rather confusingly, the genuine article is made), Colombia and Panamá (which doesn’t actually make true “Panama” hats). In the region they are commonly known as “toquillas” (pronounced toe-key-yas) or “jipijapas” (pronounced “heepy-hapas”). Throughout their range the boiled or grilled hearts of new stems of members of the genus Carludovovica are utilized as snacks or famine foods by rural people. Most of the climbers and liana-types have narrow but very strong stems and scaffold roots that are routinely harvested and used as ties and ropes by indigenous people and campesinos.
Besides being rather difficult to identify with certainty (even to genus sometimes), most cyclanths also present challenges to private collectors growing indoors due to their ultimate size. Many, particularly some of the terrestrial and hemiepiphytic species, are quite a handful as adults. Some attain imposing mature dimensions in nature (e.g. Sphaeradenia gigantea, Asplundia pycnantha). These require a very large tropical greenhouse or plenty of sheltered warm garden space to look their best. Most public gardens around the world that have walk-through hothouses usually have at least one cyclanth species in their tropical forest exhibits, usually a Ludovia, Carludovica or an Asplundia species of one type or another. None of them, honestly, will do much to make a rare plant grower’s pulse racing. These “Plain Janes” of the family are the reason many public garden curators yawn when cyclanths are mentioned as potential display items. They tend to be more popular with botanical gardens located in fully tropical settings where they can be grown outdoors year-round and can be grown to full size without elbowing out the rest of the collection.
At this time, it appears that US public gardens with good representative collections of cyclanths now include Fairchild, Marie Selby, Missouri and Atlanta. The Huntington also houses some very interesting cyclanth species.
Leaf shapes vary, but most species are bifid (fishtail), with a few that are tripartite/palmate or simple (undivided), including the entire small genus, Ludovia. Seedlings and very young plants of species that have divided leaves as adults usually have simple leaves.
To date, one unremarkable species (apparently either Asplundia rigida or A. insignis) has made an irregular commercial appearance from micropropagation. It still shows up sometimes at garden centers around the world as ‘Jungle Drums’. Aside from being a less-than-spectacular-looking selection, this offering has also suffered the misfortune of being regularly misidentified to this day as belonging to a quite different genus of more commonly-seen cyclanths, Cyclanthus or Carludovica. Like many cyclanths, ‘Jungle Drums’ is inflexibly cold intolerant and gardeners who trialed it outdoors in non-tropical regions usually awoke to them being melted the first time they spent a few hours around 40 degrees F/4.4 degrees C.
Fortunately, since 2015 as more species have become available, the family has witnessed a notable uptick in interest by rare tropical plant collectors. This has largely been due to the efforts of Fairchild Tropical Garden’s chief horticulturist, Dr. Chad Husby who, together with cyclanth specialists Barry Hammel and Roger Erikkson, have probably done as much to spur contemporary interest in the family since Danish botanist Gunnar Harling published his monograph on the family in 1958. Dr. Husby has not only painstakingly consolidated accessions of almost all of the cyclanth species that were being grown in US, EU and Asian public gardens, but has also reached out to the very few private collectors in the US who had noteworthy collections lurking outside of the public domain to find out who had what. Beginning in 2016, a number of new, relatively compact NW South American cyclanth species have also entered cultivation from commercial imports, including a few very interesting and attractive ones shown below.
Dicranopygium stenophyllum, plant and maturing inflorescence shown below. From low and intermediate elevations of Ecuador and Perú, With >24"/60 cm very glossy and plicate leaves, it is probably more suited to public and greenhouse displays than terraria but is doable in a large tank. Pictures here do not do it justice. Like the somewhat similar-looking rheophyte, D. tatica from Costa Rica and parts east, a genuinely beautiful plant in hand. An open inflorescence (briefly) has the added attraction of a wonderfully strong scent of ripe raspberries! Nearly mature bud shown. Its inflorescence is ephemeral and the plants exhibits nocturnal-early morning flowering.
I am still working on a tentative ID for the plant shown below, even to genus. From foothill forests of Morona Santiago Province, Ecuador, this is a very delicate-looking warm-growing hemiepiphyte with pencil-thick plus stems covered with soft spine-like projections emerging from the internodes. Offhand, I don't recall having seen this adaptation before on a cyclanth, but some pandans can develop quite formidable spines on their leaves and stems. Due to its relatively compact footprint, it seems a great candidate for pot cultivation in smaller spaces but needs some headroom. It responds well to pruning and suckers vigorously in youth. Leaves break/crease permanently with surprising ease, so care is needed when overhead watering with a breaker. Eminently suitable for vivariums housing very lightweight regional herps (e.g. anoles-Dactyloidae, glass frogs-Centronelidae and clown tree frogs (Dendropsopus leucophyllatus-Hylidae).
This smallish hemiepiphytic Asplundia sp. is still in limited circulation in the US, but deserves to be much more widely-cultivated. I originally received it from two separate sources as Ludovia integrifolia. When young, it can grow for some time producing only entire leaves (right and next set of images), so it is superficially similar to that plant. It appears that a few university and public gardens still have it in their inventories listed under the wrong genus. Easy to grow, prune and propagate. I am trialing a multi-stemmed 20"/50 cm tall one in a vivarium with a pair of fringed leaf frogs (Cruziohyla craspedopus) and its sole drawback in vivaria seems to be that emerging foliage can be chewed a bit when too many feeder crickets are loaded in the enclosure at once. Should be simple to ID, but neither plant has flowered for me yet at 5'/1.55 m tall. I have seen identical-looking Ecuadoran imports, so this sp. appears to occur there. I believe that I also saw "Costa Rica" as the origin on one of the tags I received, but it doesn’t match any species I know that occurs there.
Cutting-grown, multi-stemmed Asplundia sp. shown above, juvenile leaf phase, rooted in pure NZ sphagnum in a plastic basket in lightly planted vivarium together with two of the wildly shy, Godzilla-wannabe - but startling beautiful when outstretched and showing orange lateral flash marks - upper Amazonian fringed leaf frogs (Cruziohyla craspedopus).
There are several new or relatively new introductions to horticulture that are quite suitable for 24" x 18" x 18"/60 cm x 45 cm x 45 cm terraria and paludaria. Two of these are the very handsome Dicranopygium species shown below both captive and wild, one from northeastern Ecuador (terrestrial, top two rows of images with in situ shot below right courtesy of I. Portilla), and the other from Panamá (rheophytic, third row, two images with in situ shot courtesy of F. Muller). Both are lowlanders from tropical near-pluvial forests. Overall heights between 6-14"/15-35 cm. They offset vigorously and can be grown to specimen size in 8-10"/20-25 cm bulb pans. As is shown in the image taken of the Ecuadoran dwarf species in nature, more than any of the other miniatures, it can present the illusion of having distinct cross-bands on the leaves with the right conditions and feeding. The Panamanian species ("Dwarf Round") is also very glossy-leafed and appears to be the smallest known cyclanth, with individual crowns measuring ~8" x 4"/20 x 10 cm at maturity.
And then there is the coveted purple-black beauty from Panamá, Dicranopygium sp. "Dwarf Violet".
This is the most striking and desirable cyclanth (or even small palm?) in cultivation, but it is very tricky until you learn to grow it. This species despises being exposed to even moderately cool temperatures, bad water, low humidity, too much fertilizer, being root-bound, general neglect, etc. Once you get it in its groove though, a well grown group is traffic-stopping in a mixed collection. Maximum size for an individual rosette ~11"/28 cm, but it is colonial over time. It excels when grown in net baskets with its roots submerged in warm, misted tropical terraria, but was a total bust as an immersed aquatic in Guatemala when trialed by a very skilled aquarium plant grower (P. Rockstroh). I first collected seed from this species 15 years back, and have cultivated it on a continual basis ever since with greater and lesser degrees of success. In spite of some mishaps along the way, I have now produced artificially propagated plants to third generation. Below, flowering and fruiting in California earlier in 2018 (left) and a mossy compot of domestically-produced one year-old seedlings photographed here in late July of the same year (right). Note the metallic luster on the still entire leaves of seedlings. Largest one shown about 0.75"/2 cm across.
This very beautiful ripple-leafed Dicranopygium sp.from the Chocó Province of Colombia is originally from an accession at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida. It appears to be part of the D. cuatrecasasianum species complex that includes a number of taxa occurring from Costa Rica through to Ecuador. Leaves fairly rigid and very plastic-glossy. Predictably, it sulks a bit when kept cool, but - mercifully - is not prone to brown-tipping. It is relatively straightforward when grown warm with lots of water in a shallow pan-substrate combo that let its roots run free. This one is a bit confused-looking while recovering from a delayed transplant. Trust me, it is lust-inducing in person when it thrives. Perfect for advanced terraria keepers, but still rare in cultivation and hard to obtain if you're not well-connected with the very few people who grow it.
Another closely-related Dicranopygium species is shown below, apparently originating from the lowlands of northeastern Ecuador. There are several of these morphologically similar, dwarf cyclanths from this region that all have axillary inflorescences (D. cuatrecasasianum has pedunculate inflorescences, but is otherwise similar-looking - see right). I only have a couple clones of this particular species, but so far it seems remarkably unfussy for such a delicate-looking plant. Like all members of this group in my collection, a warm grower potted in mineral substrate in a bulb pan. Compare this miniature cyclanth to images of some of the dwarf chamaedorea palms shown in another section on this site to gain an insight into how even experienced palm growers can get bamboozled by these plants at first glance under field conditions.
A very attractive small rheophyte ranging along the Caribbean lowlands from Costa Rica to western Colombia is Dicranopygium tatica. Like several of the central Panamanian members of this genus that also inhabit tropical rainforest streambeds, I have found this species to be a bit slow and temperamental if temperatures are too cool, but otherwise it is of easy culture. Still rather rare in cultivation, but starting to show up in different U.S. public gardens where it will no doubt filter out to other private collections. The young plant shown below is just starting to offset and is unfurling a new inflorescence.
Rather ruefully I admit that as a former fieldworker in Central American tropical forests I was never much attracted to cyclanths. They are EVERYWHERE in diverse under-canopy humid and wet ecosystems throughout much of Latin America and, after a while, together with common palms, just become a blurred part of the general “tossed green salad” in the background. This changed abruptly when I came across the very beautiful, metallic violet semi-aquatic/rheophytic miniature species in Panamá shown and discussed here that has since found its way into very limited terrarium and shadehouse culture in the US, Australia, Canada and Asia. Since this discovery 15 years ago, I have built a fairly diverse collection of the smaller cyclanth species, almost all of which originated from Costa Rican, Panamanian, Ecuadoran and Colombian accessions. At the time this article was written I grow 33 species representing six genera. While a number of these species do achieve very large sizes when given enough space, eight or nine species of the sixty or so known members of Dicranopygium, as well as a handful of Asplundia species and Ludovia integrifolia appear to have excellent potential as permanent terrarium inhabitants that will not outgrow their enclosures. Most of these species are either true rheophytes or live on rocks or clay banks adjacent to fast-flowing streams that generate a lot of spray when in flood.
Although not particularly suitable for most small private collections, there are also several very striking epiphytic cyclanths in the genera Chorigyne, Stelestylis and Sphaeradenia in limited cultivation - and mostly in public gardens - that make superb display subjects if you have the space and greenhouse conditions for them. Most notably, the long-leafed Caribbean lowland Costa Rican and Panamanian C. pendula is an extremely handsome and attention-getting plant for large hanging baskets or mounted on tree branches in walk-through greenhouses. It would certainly be popular in broader exotica cultivation with specialist tropical palm and aroid growers if seed-grown material ever becomes available.
A mature example of the (mostly) canopy epiphyte mentioned above, the lowland rainforest cyclanth Chorigyne pendula stretching its wings in a cool tropical greenhouse in California. Leaf lobe detail shown on right. Leaves and petioles to ~6'/1.85 m in length in fully mature examples. In western and central Panamá, this species often occurs together on the same tree with two other very coveted long-leaf ornamental standouts, Anthurium wendlingeri (Araceae) and Zamia pseudoparasitica (Zamiaceae).
Growing media suitable for cyclanths can be divided into three categories:
- Pure, high-grade (read, “New Zealand”) sphagnum moss, either pure or amended, is a suitable temporary substrate for establishing bare-root transplants of all species that I am familiar with. It is also an excellent permanent medium for the epiphytic species.
- Fine grade conifer bark (I also prefer NZ origin) mixed with pumice/perlite and horticultural grade charcoal at a ratio of 3:2:1 has proven to be an excellent substrate for growing most terrestrial and climbing species.
- For rheophytes, after much trial and error over the past 15 years I have settled on a mix derived from bonsai culture of medium grade Japanese pumice (hyuga), mined Japanese clay (akadama) and horticultural charcoal also at a ratio of ~3:2:1.
Pots: I use 6-12"/15-30 cm diameter bulb pans for most of my collection, large net pots or plastic baskets for epiphytes, large plastic nursery pots for mature Sphaeradenia spp., and 3"/8 cm square plastic pots for propagating offsets of the miniatures. Plastic net pots for terraria/vivaria/paludaria.
Unsightly brown-tipping in cyclanths is usually the product of insufficient water, poor-quality water, cold, the wrong media or excess mineral salts. These plants, particularly the rheophytes, require prodigious amounts of water and humidity to thrive and are exquisitely sensitive to overfeeding. Pure water is recommended for irrigating all of the miniatures. Feeding should be light and infrequent. Liquid chelated iron feeds every three months or so at a very low concentration appear to enhance leaf and petiole color on many species.
Botanicare’s Cal-Mag Plus seems to be a good liquid feed for the miniatures. During periods of active I growth, I also do a monthly drench of Maxsea 16-16-16 at about one tsp/5 ml per gallon/3.8 lt of tap water, so ~90 ppm N. The more robust terrestrial and hemiepiphytic cyclanths tolerate Nutricote applications well. Epiphytic species and others being grown in pure NZ sphagnum moss can be drenched with Maxsea every three to four weeks, also at very dilute orchid strength.
Cork tube and coir-wrapped totems work well as supports for smaller examples of the climbers.
The main arthropod pests of cyclanths seem to be mealybugs, which are reasonably uncomplicated to deal with unless planted in a setting with live display animals in it. Slugs and snails find new very growth attractive and can seriously ding seedlings and plantlets, but are usually not a major problem long-term.
Cyclanths are pollinated in nature primarily by scarabs (Scarabaeidae) and weevils (Curculionidae). Fortunately, they do not appear to require species-specific associations since several genera have been pollinated by other families of small beetles, such as click-beetles (Elateridae) and others, in my collections in Guatemala and California. At least a few species that I grow are not self sterile and have set viable seed in both countries.
Sadly for some, it appears as if some of the higher elevation cloud forest species from southern Central America and the Andes require cool nights to survive. While high temperatures during the day don’t appear to bother them if nocturnal temperatures dip into the 50s or low 60s, sustained periods of hot daytime temps and warm nights (that means you, Miami, Singapore and Cairns!), will cause some to decline and collapse.
Light levels for the dwarf understory/rheophytic species should be kept in the 250-300 foot candle/2,690-3,230 lux range. Epiphytic species can readily adapt to light levels in the 750 foot candle/8,070 lux range or even higher.
Overall, this is fascinating family with a great deal of potential for tropical plants growers who can provide them with the space and conditions they require to thrive. There are several species that warrant being brought into cultivation by private collectors and/or public gardens as soon as possible. These include the striking Asplundia allenii from the lowlands of central Panamá as well as Patric Blanc's (the green-haired bloke of vertical gardening fame) recently-discovered, apparently undescribed rheophytic Dicranopygium sp. with undivided leaves from near Nuquí, Chocó Province, Colombia. Images of it are shown on his website (www.verticalgardenpatrickblanc.com/inspiration/aquatics-and-rheophytes?page=10). Note that he is mistaken in stating on his website that this is the smallest cyclanth species. That title (for now), belongs to two northeastern Panamanian rheophytic species shown here that mature at ~6"/15 cm rosette diameters.
This is a useful RBG Kew link for those interested in other members of the family: https://www.kew.org/science/tropamerica/neotropikey/families/Cyclanthaceae.htm
A special thanks goes to Dr. Chad Husby of FTBG who rekindled my interest in propagating cyclanths after a decade of growing them more or less in isolation. Chad has been especially generous in our occasional dealings, providing live material otherwise very difficult or impossible for me to obtain. Silvia and Mario Palmieri of Guatemala City, Guatemala hosted bench space in their commercial greenhouses during the late 2000s that I used to grow hundreds of rare cyclanth seedlings out on without ever questioning why the devil I was dedicating time and resources to plants with no commercial value back then. Several anonymous individuals in Ecuador and Perú have kindly supplied legally-exported/imported examples of a few of the plants shown above. ¡Mil gracias!