Epistephium Kunth 1822

The Genus

Native to Central and South America and the West Indies

Edited 18 May 2007
© Nina Rach

Epistephium hernandii photo by Nina Rach

The terrestrial orchid genus Epistephium was originally described by Humboldt, Bonpland & Kunth (H.B.K.). The type species is Epistephium elatum, published by Kunth in 1822 in Syn. Pl. Aequin. 1:340. It was collected by Kunth in Santa Ana, now called Falan, in the Department of Tolima, Colombia. The name is derived from the Greek "epistephes," meaing "crowned," referring to the corona at the apex of the ovary.

This genus comprises about 30 species and it is allied to Vanilla, Pogonia, Isotria, and Cleistes. Traits that Epistephium shares with the Vanilla group include winged seeds and the presence of true pollinia. Epistephium flowers have four compressed, granular pollinia. However, the growth habit differs between Vanilla (epiphytic, with scandent, flexible, long stems) and Epistephium (terrestrial, with erect growth).

Ken Cameron, a practitioner of phylogenetic systematics at the New York Botanical Garden, has been engaged in molecular research on Vanilla and its allied genera and expects to be working on a revision of the genus Epistephium in the near future. In his 1999 abstract, Cameron writes "The pattern in Vanillinae also suggests a possible origin for the subtribe in South America prior to the breakup of Gondwana. Epistephium (South America) is sister to Eriaxis and Clematepistephium (New Caledonia) and these are sister to genera from Australasia. These interpretations indicate that Orchidaceae may have evolved earlier than traditionally believed."

The genus Epistephium is found in South America, Trinidad, and the West Indies, and are quite rare in cultivation. They are generally warm-growing, and the habitat ranges from open savannah grasslands & prairies to hot, humid lowlands and low montane rainforest. They are mostly large, cane-like plants, growing to 5-6 meters high. The stems may grow horizontally near the base of the plants, having the appearance of a rhizome, before turning to grow vertically. Therefore, it is fatal to cut the plant at what appears to be a rhizome. Epistephium has terminal inflorescenses which each bear several flowers successively. Flowers are large, brightly-colored, often lavender-magenta, but have thin substance and are short-lived.

Epistephium hernandii photo by Nina Rach

The flowers and general plant habit of Epistephium resemble Sobralia, but they are not related. The leaves are quite different from Sobralia. Epistephium leaves are glossy, with an unusual reticulate (branching) vein structure, not dull and plicate with parallel veins like Sobralia.

We observed plants of Epistephium hernandii Garay blooming in Venezuela's Gran Sabana in October 2001. Some were growing in dense, grassy underbrush near a stream bank (4m tall), others were growing in full sun and nearly pure quartz sand, amidst scrubby bushes (1.5-2m tall). Epistephium lucidum Cogniaux is also said to grow in this area of SE Venezuela and adjacent Brazil and Guyana, but we did not observe it.

Photos above and at right, by Nina Rach: Epistephium hernandii Garay in Venezuela's Gran Sabana (Bolivar State).

Photo below, by Norbert Baumbach: Epistephium hernandii Garay, photographed in the Gran Sabana, on the way to Roraima, behind "campo militar" (1,500 m). It was growing with Catasetum discolor and some Epidendrum sp. between rocks.

Epistephium hernandii photo by Norbert Baumbach

Epistephium Species List:

Epistephium amabile Schlechter [Peru]
Epistephium amplexicaule Poeppig & Endlicher [Colombia, Guyana, Peru]
Epistephium brevicristatum R.E. Schultes [Colombia]
Epistephium cruegeri Reichb.f. ex Griseb.
Epistephium duckei Huber [VE, COL, Brazil, Peru, BOL]
Epistephium elatum Kunth [ECU, COL] *TYPE SPECIES*
Epistephium ellipticum R.O. Williams & Summerhayes [BR, TR, VE, GUY, BEL, W.Indies]
Epistephium frederici-augusti Reichenbach f. [Ecuador]
Epistephium goyanum Krackowizer
Epistephium hernandii Garay [VE, COL]
Epistephium herzogianum Kraenzlin
Epistephium lamprophyllum Schlechter [Ecuador]
Epistephium laxiflorum Barbosa Rodrigues [Brazil]
Epistephium lobulosum L.A. Garay [Ecuador]
Epistephium lucidum Cogniaux [Brazil]
*Epistephium macrophyllum Schlechter [syn. for E. duckei]
*Epistephium mardenii Ruschi [syn. for E. duckei]
Epistephium mattogrossense Hoehne [Brazil]
Epistephium monanthum Poeppig & Endlicher [Peru]
Epistephium parviflorum Lindley [Trinidad, GUY, Fr.Gu., SUR, VE, COL, BOL, Brazil]
Epistephium petiolatum Huber [Venezuela]
Epistephium petiolatum var. altissimum Brade
Epistephium portellianum Barbosa Rodrigues [Brazil]
Epistephium praestans Hoehne [Brazil]
Epistephium racemosum Barbosa Rodrigues
Epistephium regis-alberti Kraenzlin
Epistephium sclerophyllum Lindley [BR, Paraguay, Peru, BOL, VE]
Epistephium sessiliflorum Lindley
Epistephium smilacifolium Reichb.f.
Epistephium speciosum Barbosa Rodrigues [Brazil]
Epistephium subrepens Hoehne [Venezuela, Guyana, Brazil]
Epistephium tenuifolium Mansf. ex Hoehne [Brazil]
Epistephium williamsii Hooker f. [Brazil]

Printed References:

Eric A. Christenson and D. Clarke (Jan-Feb-Mar 2000) "Native Orchids of Guyana" in: Orchid Digest 64(1):24-25 [Epistephium duckei; E. subrepens - photos]

David E. Bennett and Eric A. Christenson (1998) Icones Orchidacearum Peruviarum. Plates 401-600. Unbound, 400pp. [Plate 475: Epistephium duckei Huber]

Brako & Zarucchi (1993) Catálogo de las Angiospermas y Gimnospermas del Perú. Missouri Botanical Garden. [a preliminary checklist of Peru's plants, including nearly 1600 orchid species]

Kenneth M. Cameron (1999) "Biogeography of Vanilloideae (Orchidaceae)," in: XVI International Botanical Congess Proceedings" Abstract and poster session.

Kenneth M. Cameron* and Mark W. Chase (199_) "Systematics of Vanilloideae (Orchidaceae)," in: Monocots II, Second International Conference on the Comparative Biology of the Monocotyledons. Abstract.

G.C.K. Dunsterville & Leslie A. Garay (1959-1976) Venezuelan Orchids Illustrated. Six volume set. (Venez Orch) [Epistephium duckei 3/124; E. hernandii 6/150; E. macrophyllum 3/124; E. petiolatum 1/144; E. subrepens 1/144]

G.C.K. Dunsterville and Leslie A. Garay (1979) Orchids of Venezuela-- An Illustrated Field Guide. Massachusetts: Botanical Museum of Harvard University, 3 white volumes in a black slipcase.

Ernesto Foldats (1970) Flora de Venezuela, vol. I, pp. 104-116. Edicion Especial del Instituto Botanico. [13 Epistephium sp.: cruegeri, duckei, elatum, ellipticum, lucidum, macrophyllum, minutum, parviflorum, petiolatum, racemosum, sclerophyllum, subreprens, tenuifolium]

Leslie A. Garay (1978) Flora of Ecuador: Orchidaceae. NFR Stockholm 305pp. [Epistephium on pp. 53-57: elatum (line-drawing), frederici, lamprophyllum, lobulosum].

Peter M. Jørgensen and Susana Leon-Ya'nez, eds. (30 July 1999) Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of Ecuador. Missouri Botanical Garden, vii + 1181 pp.

Julian Kenny (1988) Native Orchids of the Eastern Caribbean. Macmillan Caribbean, 88p. [Epistephium parviflorum, color photo, Lesser Antilles, Trinidad].

Luis Marden (1971) “The Exquisite Orchids,” in: National Geographic, Apr. 1971, pp.485-513. [Epistephium mardenii]

Pedro Ortiz Valdivieso, S.J. (1976) Orquideas de Colombia. Bogota: Fondo Colombiano de Investigaciones Cientificas y Proyectos Especiales "Francisco Jose de Caldas". Text in Spanish. [pg. 109, line drawing of E. duckei]

Pedro Ortiz V., Ed. (1994) Native Colombian Orchids, Vol. 5 Supplement: AA-Lepanthes. Colombian Orchid Society, pp. 776-777.

Mariana Ospina Hernandez (1958) Orquideas Colombianas (Colombian Orchids) Publicaciones Tecnicas Ltda, Bogota, Colombia, 305pp. [Epistephium on pp. 30-32: E. amplexicaule; E. brevicristatum]

G.F.J. Pabst and F. Dungs (1977) Orchidaceae Brasilienses. Bruck-Verlag, Vol. 1., pp. 120-122.

Andrew Paterson (2002) "Epistephium praestans" in: Orchid Review 110(1): 17-18. [two color photos]

Gustavo A. Romero (Aug 1993) "Unique Orchid Habitats in Southern Venezuela: II. Arbustales or white-sand shrublands," in: Amer. Orchid Soc. Bull. 62(8): 810-818. [p.816: Epistephium ellipticum R.O. Williams & Summerhayes is "typically associated with vegetation on the sandstone mountains of the Roraima formation"]

Gustavo A. Romero and German Carnevali (2000) Orchids of Venezuela-- An Illustrated Field Guide, Second Edition. Caracas: Armitano Editores, 3 gray volumes in a purple slipcase. [Epistephium hernandii]

Richard Evans Schultes (1956) "A new species of Epistephium from Colombia," in: Amer. Orch. Soc. Bull. 25: 259-262.

Richard Evans Schultes (1960) Native Orchids of Trinidad and Tobago. Oxford: Pergamon Press Inc., 275p. [Epistephium ellipticum; parviflorum]

Richard Evans Schultes (1967) Flora of Trinidad and Tobago [Section: Orchidaceae]. Government Printery, Trinidad and Tobago, Vol. 3, No.1.

W.L. Stern and W.S. Judd (2000) "Comparative anatomy and systematics of the orchid tribe Vanilleae excluding Vanilla," in: Bot. J. Linn. Soc. 134(1-2): 179-202 - illus.

Orquideología; Revista de la Sociedad Colombiana de Orquideología {Orquideologia}

Online References:

ING: Index Nominum Genericorum, from the U.S. National Herbarium, Dept. of Systematic Biology - Botany, Smithsonian Institution

International Plant Names Index [IPNI], www.ipni.org

The Kew Record of Taxonomic Literature

Caribbean: ???

The Guianas:
Checklist of the Orchids of the Guianas

Iwokrama Plant Species List, Guyana

Preliminary Checklist of the Plants of Kaieteur National Park, Guyana: ANTHOPHYTA - MONOCOTYLEDONS [Epistephium amplexicaule Poeppig & Endlicher, Epistephium ellipticum LO Williams & Summerhayes, Epistephium parviflorum Lindley, Epistephium subrepens Hoehne] ]

List of plant species, Nouragues area From Pierre Belbenoit, Odile Poncy, Bernard Riera in: Nouragues: Dynamics and Plant-Animal Interactions in a Neotropical Rainforest, F. Bongers, P. Charles-Dominique, P.M. Forget & M. Thery (eds), Kluwer, Dordrecht, Pays Bas (in prep).

1999 Brazilian phone card

Photo of Epistephium sclerophyllum by Rubens Maciel Capuzzo

Epistephium speciosum photo and data sheet from Brazil

An Epistephium species was featured on a set of ten orchid phone cards issued by TELEMAR in 1999 (photo to right).

TROPICOS - Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of Ecuador [Three endemic species: Epistephium elatum, lamprophyllum, lobulosum]

Icones Orchidacearum Peruviarum, Cumulative Index - Plates 1-600, by David E. Bennett & Eric A. Christenson [a single species: E. duckei]

Orchids from the Rio Alto Mayo Area, Peru [part of the Floristic Inventory of the Bosque de Protección del Río Alto Mayo (San Martín, Peru)] - Epistephium amabile Schlechter

Epistephium duckei, from Carlos Hajek's Peruvian Orchids website.

Wolfgang Renner's page on Epistephium [E. duckei photo]

Comments? Send email: sobralia@autrevie.com.

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