Rhipsalis (2007)

PhotoBy Chris Deem (March 2007)

In this misty Brazilian rainforest, plants are an interconnected abundance of life. The trees, entwined with clinging vines, grow tall, reaching for the light. Below in the shadows, small ferns grow. High in the entangled branches, orchids bloom, bromeliads thrive and birds of many colors sing.

There is another plant here, one you might not expect. Its roots hold fast to the bark of its old host tree. It absorbs its moisture and nutrients from the frequent rains and decaying leaf matter on its host branch. Suspended high in the canopy, its pendulous body hangs. Long green jointed stems hang like slender fingers, reaching down, as though for a lost way of life.

The time of its pale yellow flowers is past. In its overturned existence, now is the time of its round white fruits. They cover the slender stems like pearls, glistening from the rain, as they dangle in the breeze. This is a rhipsalis cactus.

Rhipsalis is an interesting member of the cactus family. Although the plants are cacti, they adapt to their rainforest environments. Rhipsalis grow as epiphytes, their bodies supported by rocks or trees. These cacti are not succulent and their spines, if any, are minimal. Their stems are long and jointed or can be flat and leaflike or even occasionally fernlike. Most species flower in late winter; soon after attractive fruits ensue.

Birds have spread their seeds throughout South and Central America. However, they are also found in Madagascar and the rainforest below Mt. Kilimanjaro. How they arrived in some of these places remains a mystery.