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Platycerium madagascariense Baker & Cymbidiella pardalina (Rchb. f.) Garay

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Some additional notes and photos of these two Malagasy ant-associated plants of interest to tropical ornamental horticulture.


Platycerium madagascariense is a branch epiphyte with a wide area of historically-documented distribution in wet forests of eastern and northern Madagascar, roughly between parallels 14 and 22 degree S at elevations from ~400 to 1,200 masl. At least one local name for it has been attached to a herbarium sheet at MOBOT, "Ramandrakotra". It is very popular in cultivation in the EU, Asia and the US and recent years have seen its availability in the ornamental trade increase exponentially when compared to the 1990s. Both spore-grown plants and offsets are now readily available from both staghorn fern specialists and other nurseries that deal in exoterica. Several man-made hybrids are available from specialty nurseries, including crosses with P. elephantotis, P. ellisii and P. alcicorne, as well as a few spontaneous hybrids involving an unknown second parent, such as 'Durval Nunes'.


Where this species of fern and the showy-flowered orchid, Cymbidiella pardalina, occur in sympatry in east-central Madagascar it appears that they normally form a mutualistic relationship. I have not been able to determine what ant genera are associated with these two plants; indeed, with a few exceptions, most reports of myrmecophily seem to be anecdotal. Hopefully, Derrick can unearth some corroborative evidence that both species are reliably myrmecophilous. Since the fern has a much wider distribution and elevational range than C. pardalina (which appears to be restricted to ~600-800 masl), there are large swaths of eastern and northern Madagascar where they presumably do not co-exist. A careful online search for images of Platycerium madagascariense will indeed reveal at least a couple of in situ photos of the fern on trees, absent the orchid. There are published reports that link this species to the Madagascan (and East African) mimosa, Albizia gummifera (J.F. Gmel.) C.A. Sm., that is also known to harbor other Platycerium spp. elsewhere in its range on the mainland.


Others have noted the remarkable convergence between the channeled appearance of the shield fronds of both of the Platycerium spp. that are currently accepted as being myrmephytes; P. madagascariense and the tropical SE Asian native, P. ridleyi. It is tempting to speculate that these attractive shield fronds, whose morphology is unique in the genus, provide some kind of ready made home or pathways for ants, much as is evident in the interior of many ant rubiacs.


Platycerium madagascariense thrives under very bright conditions in "cool tropical" conditions. My experience indicates that it can be grown successfully alongside P. ridleyi, but that a warmer temperature regimen favors the latter at some expense to growth of the former. Unlike P.ridleyi, the root mass of P. madagascariense should not be allowed to dry out for any prolonged period of time, and feeding should be frequent but consistently low dose to avoid marginal burn on the fronds. Well-grown adult plants should hold three to five fertile fronds in good condition. I have never grown one with shield fronds of a greater diameter than about 25 cm, but I have seen photos of a greenhoused plant grown in Colombia that was ~35 cm across.


I have grown this species in plastic and wooden orchid baskets, on cork mounts and on treefern fiber totems. My current mount in California is a modified 15 cm wooden basket, made by disassembling two new baskets (removal of corner pins and base section is easy with needle-nose pliers, a flat head screwdriver and wire cutters), moving the bottom section "up" to the middle zone of the basket, adding one or two layers of slats borrowed from the second basket, then reassembling so that the basket is evenly divided in the middle, and hung vertically rather than horizontally. I then pack both sides of the basket with NZ long fiber sphagnum and tie large offsets to the mounts with fishing line. in my opinion, plants grown on baskets, as opposed to plants grown on plaques, achieve better form. My next mount for a group of large offsets that I am preparing now will be on a 12 cm diameter x 60 cm long cork tube hung lengthwise in an attempt to get an even more globular form for the shield fronds further down the line.


Several growers in the US have set up Platycerium madagacariense and Cymbidiella pardalina on the same mount in order to demonstrate the relationship between the two in nature. These attempts have achieved varying degrees of success from an aesthetic and horticultural perspective; readers may view these results online to judge for themselves whether this is something they would care to replicate. I intend to play around with one of these setups sometime over the next 12 months or so.


I have included several photos taken this weekend of a specimen of mine in the California cool greenhouse, together with some flower details for one of my Cymbidiella grown in a warm house at the same location. Note that this young plant is almost bloomed out for the season, but did manage 15 flowers for its first flowering. Larger plants (they get big) can reliably produce multiple inflorescences with >20 flowers. Seed-grown plants are very straightforward in cultivation under intermediate conditions. Flowers are very showy and of a very unusual and striking color combination. For size reference, the fern has overgrown a modified 15 cm wooden basket in less than 18 months. For what its worth, I find that Platycerium madagscariense grow markedly faster under my California conditions than in highland Guatemala.







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