Epiphytic and lithophytic ferns of Fukuoka – simple frond types

Within the nearly sopping wet subtropical low elevation forests of southern Japan one can easily find ferns growing not only in the ground, but also on every imaginable perch.  This article focuses on four species that are found either growing on rocks (lithophytic habit) or on trees (epiphytic habit), but  that can also colonize soils, in particular the moist or even wet ground near mountain streams.

As one might expect, such places give the impression of the lushness of a tropical rain forest, however such forests are in fact temperate, albeit with a strong influence of subtropical flora.  First, we’ll look at the genus Neocheiropteris, represented in the forests of Fukuoka Prefecture by two species, N. enstata, and N. subhastata, the former being a conspicuous ground and rock fern in many forests while the latter showing itself to be a shy cousin with great flexibility in habitat choice.

Neocheiropteris enstata habitat
Neocheiropteris ensata can often be seen growing in dense colonies on rocks.

N. enstata at first glance might be mistaken to be a species of Pyrrosia.  That is what I thought it was the first time I saw it.  It grows either as a lithophyte or terrestrially, but always in a place with abundant water (one thing that sets it apart from Pyrrosia which like drier sites).

Neocheiropteris enstata fronds
The fronds of Neocheiropteris ensata are deeply ribbed.

Along streams it can form lush mats on top of flat rocks, however, it is just as happy to grow in the ground.  I’ve not seen it growing as an epiphyte in the Fukuoka area, but in exceptionally wet climates it could possibly grow in trees.  Occasionally colonies can be continuous carpets of fronds. Another place you sometimes find it is on rocks on seepage slopes. Here the plants never dry out and in fact the roots are nearly under water much of the growing season.  The large, broad shiny leaves are deeply ribbed making it an attractive plant.  The round, naked sori are in lose pairs on either side of the midrib of the frond, a diagnostic feature.  It is usually seen at low elevations, not more than 400 meters high in the Fukuoka area.

A far rarer fern than its common relative, N. subhastata can be found growing low on trees, on rocks, and also in the ground.  I first found it growing low on trees next to a stream, and even growing on dead bamboo canes.  At first I thought it was Microsorium buergerianum, a fern it closely resembles, although when seen side by side the differences are obvious.  These plants had simple elongate fronds with undulating margins and sori resembling both Microsorium and N. enstata.  Further upstream from these  was a colony of very small ferns with distinctly triangular fronds growing over a mossy rock surface and terrestrially.  I immediately remembered seeing this fern in a picture and guessed it to be N. subhastata.

Neocheiropteris subhastata
Neocheiropteris subhastata growing as an epiphyte on a small tree.

I returned time and again to look for spore on these plants, but I could never find any.  One day, a little further downstream, I saw some of this same triangular frond fern growing in humus on a huge boulder.  I followed its trailing rhizome and remarkably as it grew out of the humus and became a true lithophyte on the rock surface, the fronds “turned into” the elongate frond fern I found downstream.  I immediately saw my mistake and realized that this was indeed one species with two distinct frond types.

The terrestrially growing fronds are short, triangular, and sterile while the lithophytic or epiphytic fronds are elongate and fertile and have a small auricle on one side of the base of the frond.  Like E. enstata, the sori are in round and naked in lose pairs on either side of the midrib of the frond.  This is a much smaller species than N. enstata, so the two cannot be confused.  This species seems to require high humidity to survive.  I’ve only seen it at low elevation, ~300 meters or less.
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Epiphytic Ferns of Fukuoka – the common species

Southern Japan has a peculiar climate that has allowed essentially subtropical forests to exist in what is technically a warm temperate climate with four distinct seasons.  This forest is home to many orchids and ferns that one wouldn’t expect to find in a place that happily supports such things as daffodils, cherry trees, and temperate rhododendrons.

Among these are the epiphytic and lithophytic fern species that make their last northern stand on the islands of Kyushu, Shikoku, and the southeastern coast of Honshu. This article is the first of several about these northern stragglers.  The following species can all be seen within a short bike ride from my house on the eves of Kyushu’s largest metropolitan area, Fukuoka City, and in fact could even be called epiphytic weeds.

Lepisorus thunbergianus in a desiccated state.
Lepisorus thunbergianus in a desiccated state. When the rain comes these fronds will get plump and dark green again.

Without a doubt, southern Japan’s most common and widespread epiphytic fern is Lepisorus thunbergianus.  It can be found on almost any tree or stone wall whether it’s in the country or city.  In truth, some of the most dense colonies I’ve seen are in urban parks and cemeteries.  Not surprisingly it is also the most conspicuous epiphytic plant species around.  To the untrained eye it might seem to be some strange grass growing up in the trees since it grows in clumps and has long, grass-like fronds. It often is found in association with Fukuoka’s next most common epiphytic fern, Lemmaphyllum microphyllum.

Lepisorus thunbergianus sori
The sori of Lepisorus thunbergianus are round and naked – lacking the covering called the indusium which protects many other fern species spores.

L. thunbergianus is found growing on  the boles, branches, and even twigs of trees.  It also grows on any available rock surface, concrete wall, or wood structure such as a wooden roof or post.  While usually found at lower elevations, it can also grow higher up in mountains, up to 800 meters or more.  Truly, this isn’t a picky fern, but it cannot survive on the forest floor.  Many thousands of plants fall to the ground, and they all perish with no exceptions.  In dry weather the fronds crinkle up and look positively dead, but the next rain they plump up again.  This is a species that will never be in short supply in Japan.

A smaller relative to L. thunberianus is the diminutive L. onoei.  In the Fukuoka area this species is confined to higher mountain ridgelines, usually above 700 meters elevation.  At these altitudes the more common L. thunbergianus is replaced by this more diminutive species where it can form extensive colonies on tree trunks.  Other than simply being smaller in stature than L. thunbergianus it also has a rounded frond tip, a diagnostic feature.  See the comparison shot of the two species growing side by side to see the difference.  As seen in the picture, L. onoei is less than half the size of L. thunbergianus.  It is a lovely little plant of cloud shrouded mountain ridgelines, at least in the Fukuoka area.

Lepisorus onoei habitat
Lepisorus onoei in habitat at 1000 meters elevation, Sefuriyama, Fukuoka Prefecture.

Next to L. thunbergiana, Lemmaphyllum microphyllum comes in a close second as Fukuoka’s most common epiphytic fern.  In truth it is just as happy growing on rocks as it is on trees.  In either case it can form impressive colonies, virtually covering the entire bole of a large tree or huge protruding rock outcrop.  The tiny round leaves have earned it various names, including the common English name “green penny fern”.  In fact the plant has two types of fronds, one fertile (the sporophyll) and the other sterile (the trophophyll).  The sterile fronds are nearly round and lay flat to their growing surface and give the plant its characteristic look. The fertile fronds are much more narrow and flare upwards in an arc away from the growing surface.
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Fuukiran – odd flower forms

Most Neofinetia have a very standard shape and color, but there exist some flower forms that are so outrageous it is hard to believe they are actually the pure species.  I remember vividly seeing Seikai for the first time years ago and thinking, “I wonder what that is crossed with?”  A few couple later I was find out that this form was indeed a pure Neofinetia, not a hybrid at all.  While the debate about the purity of some forms rages on, the natural variability this species exhibits  remains remarkable.  Perhaps no other group of fuukiran exemplifies this variety, both in breadth and form, than the odd shaped flower types.

Odd flower forms can range in size as well with plants like Seikai, Unkai, and Shunkyuuden sporting abnormally large flowers while others are diminutive such as Kisshukouryuu.  Still others have extra spurs, no spurs, flowers that don’t fully open, flowers that face directly upward, and so on.  Some even are highly colored such as the prized Benikanzashi.  Many are rare and therefore valuable.  Here’s a taste.

Perhaps the most unique of all – Seikai.

One of the most choice fuukiran is Seikai since it is so different from most that at first glance it is hard to believe it is a pure Neofinetia falcata at all.  It is a “bean-leaf” type, but the leaves have a lovely arch to them, hence its  name which means “ocean wave”.  Like other bean leaf forms they are very succulent.  The flowers too are just amazing, much larger than an average flower, pink, with upturned flower parts and a straight spur pointing in a downward direction.  It remains fairly expensive since it cannot be reproduced through mericlones or seed, but only by division.  Slow growing, but not difficult, this one belongs in every serious fuukiran collection.

While the flowers of Unkai look much like its relative Seikai, the plant’s leaves are more normal looking.

A close cousin to Seikai is Unkai , but honestly it cannot hold a candle to its fairer friend.  The flowers have a very similar shape as well, but tend to be paler.  It too is a “bean-leaf” type, however the leaves are much less curved.  It is a faster grower than Seikai, forming very nice clumps quickly and when in flower it really is a great looking plant.  Care needs to be taken when watering both of these since direct watering can make the buds blast.

Shunkyuuden is one of the oddest looking forms of all.

A really bizarre flower is Shunkyuden.  It has many more flower parts than is normal and they grow in all manner of directions – they are difficult to explain, so I’ll let the photo speak for itself.  Variability of their form is high, with no two looking quite alike, even year to year.  It tends to be late flowering, often into late July.  A bit slow to form clumps, but not difficult, and also quite expensive.  Unfortunately, the flowers are completely sterile.
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Fuukiran – colored flower forms

In nature Neofinetia falcata occurs mostly as white flowered plants, but some individuals can have purple flushing, sometimes just on the flower’s spur (the downward extended and curved part that contains the nectar) and occasionally this color can extend to most of the flower, in particular the sepals and petals.  Other forms can be found with green flowers, again, mostly in the sepals, petals, and spurs.  No confirmed yellow flowers have been found yet, although many dealers claim to have true wild collected yellow flowered plants.  I’ll speak more about that later.  The discussion here is about some of the more common colored flowered fuukiran.

The first group are the purple flowered forms.  All of these are claimed to be at one time wild collected and nowadays are propagated though division and also from seeds.  One of the most common and easy to flower is Benisuzume. This one clumps very quickly and it is always generous about flowering too.  Its flowers are on the small side and usually are just a pastel pinkish purple.  The lip is totally white.

Benisuzume – a generous flowering form.

Shutennou is one of the most famous of the purple flowered forms. It originally was from Shikoku and wild collected plants were slow to grow from division. Plants propagated from seed today are fast growers and clump well. I’ve found it easy to flower, but I don’t get as many spikes as on Benisuzume. An interesting plant from the island of Shikoku is Shikoku Akabana. The only negative thing I can say about this one is that it is slow to clump. Tougen is an older form with lovely curving purple spurs. It seems easy to grow and flower, yet remarkably not well known or grown given its charms.

Shutennou – a fast clumping and vigorous purple flowered form.
Tougen - an older form with lovely curved purple spurs.
Tougen – an older form with lovely curved purple spurs.

Shikoku Akabana
Shikoku Akabana – a wild form from Shikoku Island

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The sago palm, Cycas revoluta, in Japan

This article is about Japan’s only native cycad, Cycas revoluta, the so called King Sago palm.  Of course, like other cycads it is not a palm at all, but rather a member of a very ancient group of plants that predate all flowering plants and modern conifer trees.  This lovely species is perhaps the most cold resistant of all cycads and yet can be grown in tropical climates as well.  It can grow in either sun or shade, it is able to withstand both monsoonal rains and extended droughts, it responds well to both container culture and open gardens, and for the most part needs little care.  In Japan it is called sotetsu, and has been an important garden plant for centuries here.

Cycas revoluta is native only to Japan’s southern islands and the extreme south end of the southernmost main island, Kyushu, in Kagoshima Prefecture.  It’s habitat is rocky shores where it can be found growing on near vertical rock faces in full sun.  This region is essentially frost free and is classified as a subtropical climate.  Winters average around 10 C (50 F) in the north of its range and 18 C (65 F) in the south.  Winter extremes can go to freezing or even below in Kagoshima, but this is rare, particularly along the seacoast where this species is found.  Summer temperatures throughout its range average nearly 30 C (86 F) with extremes rarely getting above 35 C (95 F) due to the moderating effects of  warm coastal waters.

Giant Sago Palm Nagasaki
A huge sago palm at the Glover House in Nagasaki, Kyushu, Japan.

Rainfall is high with 2000-2200 mm (78-86 inches) falling in an average year.   Most of that falls in the late spring, summer, and fall, particularly during the monsoon season. The summer monsoon starts early on the southern island of Okinawa, in May usually, but is a little later in Kyushu.  This season typically ends in July.  August is often dry, sunny, and hot, but towards its end, typhoons become more and more common and so another peak of moisture comes at this time.  Falls are drier and often sunny, but by December skies grow cloudy, rainfall drops considerably, and temperatures cool down.  Humidity is the one stable element – averaging between 75-80% year round.

Coming from a place like the one just described, you would imagine that this plant doesn’t have much cold tolerance, but you’d be wrong!  This cycad has been grown successfully in the warmer parts of the UK and parts of the southeastern USA that routinely get hard freezes.  This natural ability to withstand cold conditions has made this one of the most versatile cycads for the open garden throughout the world.  In Japan it is commonly seen in parks and next to public buildings, but rarely in private yards.  No doubt this due to the ultimate size these plants can attain, which can mean up to 3 meters or more tall (10+ feet) and with a frond spread nearly as large.  It is grown throughout the warmer parts of Japan far beyond its native range – clear up to central Honshu at least where it requires protection in winter.  In terms of the USDA’s cold hardiness scale, it can withstand zone 8, and the warmer parts of zone 7 if winter protective measures are taken.
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Welcome to BotanyBoy

This is an online plant encyclopedia with a particular focus on some of my favorite subjects – orchids and ferns. Also, you’ll notice quite a bit of Japanese flavor since I have resided on Japan’s southernmost main island, Kyushu, for the past 11 years. While interest in plants extends back over my entire life, first kindled by my father in the woodlands of New York State over 4 decades ago, it has recently been strongly shaped by the sheer artistry of Japan’s horticulturalists.  Check out the Botany Boy video channel.



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How to grow fuukiran, the basics

Neofinetia falcata is an easily grown orchid.  In nature it grows on trees or sometimes rocks, and is termed epiphytic in habit (literally meaning “a plant growing on the outside of something”).  Therefore, they cannot tolerate being planted in soil, but instead require other composts that remain airy and do not break down quickly.  They also are very resistant to cold in winter compared to most other epiphytic orchids.  They do need a true cool winter rest to flower and grow correctly, but just as important is a long, warm, and moist summer season. Fuukiran, being special forms of N. falcata, respond to the same basic conditions as the typical wild form of the species.

Let’s start with proper planting. The wild forms of Neofinetia falcata, known as fuuran in Japanese, can be grown like they are in nature, that is, mounted to outside trees in appropriate climates or onto tree fern plaques, any nontoxic wood, or for that matter onto rough stone such a pumice.  I grow large ones on inverted clay flower pots very successfully. They can also be grown like their tropical relatives such as Vanda and Ascocentrum, in clay pots or baskets with little compost.  Some people grow them in a typical orchid bark and perlite mix with reasonable success.  As long as the growing medium isn’t allowed to break down too much or stay continually wet, thus insuring healthy roots, they will grow fine using any of these methods.

Naturalized Neofinetia
These wild forms of N. falcata are naturalized on a plum tree in the author's garden in Fukuoka, Japan.

Fuukiran, being of such high value, are usually handled with more care, especially in Japan, but also by growers worldwide who have learned traditional growing techniques perfected over the centuries.   In short, plants are grown on top of a mound of high quality, long fibered sphagnum moss that is ball shaped and hollow at its core.  This ball of moss sits in a pot that allows for maximum air movement around the roots.  That, I’m afraid is a really tough thing to imagine if you’ve never seen it, so I’ll have to go into detail  about how this ball is made and how to incorporate the plant into it.  Repotting them in this manner should be done in late winter, just before they commence their growth cycle.  If you repot them at other times you can damage growing root tips and delay proper growth during their growing season.  Check out this video to see how to pot them the traditional way:

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