A cactus conquering the forest

El Palenque, a well-known hill of Western Cuba, was chosen for the introduction of 51 individuals of Leptocereus scopulophilus. This cactus is exclusive from Cuba and has a remarkable resemblance to a güije. Two new royal oaks welcome them.


Fecha: 4/10/2019


Project: Conservation of threatened species of Cuban dry ecosystems


Leptocereus scopulophilus was born to science in 1993, seventy years after its first recollect at Loma de Somorrostro, an abandoned quarry in San José de las Lajas (south of Havana). Since then, the species was often mistaken with a closely related species: Leptocereus leonii. Both cacti are very similar although their flowers and fruits are completely different.


Today it is an unmistakable. In fact, this cactus went from being barely known to be the one with the highest amount of ecological studies. Everything started in 2005, when Vladimir Gámez, a friend and a cactus passionate, relocated the species on the slopes of the Pan de Matanzas, a true open sky lab.

Leptocereus scopulophilus es la especie de cactus cubano con mayor cantidad de estudios sobre su ecología.

Now we know that a small bat and two species of night moths pollinate its flowers. We also know that a rodent (“jutía conga”) is the one dispersing its seeds; and most of all, we know how many individuals remain in the natural population. This information have allowed us to understand the role of the species in the ecosystem and its reduced chances of surviving on its own.

“Even though the population at the Pan de Matanzas has 900 individuals -half of them adults- and the population of Puerto Escondido has another 11 individuals, Leptocereus scopulophilus lives at the edge of the abyss. Besides being one of the most threatened cactus in Cuba, both populations are unique and are literally on a cliff”

Duniel Barrios

Leader of the project

National Botanical Garden Researcher

A single harmful event like a hurricane or a fire could reduce the populations drastically. This is why we decided to explore another nearby sites for its reintroduction, increasing the cactus’ chances to survive.

A new home for Leptocereus scopulophilus

Last year we collected 150 cuttings from different individuals at the Pan de Matanzas with the intention of producing new plants to introduce in other localities. Only 51 of these propagated plants survived in local nurseries. They are the “tough ones” we took to El Palenque. This hill reaches the 300 meters over sea level and owes its name to the settlement the fugitive slaves used to create in the forest.

La siembra de cactus en El Palenque tiene dificultades por el sustrato rocoso.

El Palenque raises like a stone colossus next to the Pan de Matanzas. Ninety five plant species have been identified in this locality but it probably has about 300 species. On the other hand, it is part of the Western limestone elevations that constitute a refuge for the dry ecosystem flora, the most affected by agriculture over the years.

Conservation is not that simple

The night before the field trip was very rainy. The plants produced from cuttings, with large spines like any adult plant, had to be packaged very carefully to avoid any damage.

José Ángel y Adriham fueron dos de los protagonistas de esta acción de conservación.

Sandy conoce bien el Leptocereus scopulophilus pues lleva trabajando más de 3 años en la zona.

The access to the best site for planting is in Adel’s property, a farmer that lives at the base of the hill. He kindly agreed to drive us up to where the trail becomes more steep. It is hard to walk through the dense vegetation that grows at the base of El Palenque carrying boxes of plants. Later on, it gets even harder when the soil is pure rock and there is nothing to hold on to on your way up.

Planting had its own challenges. The scarce soil accumulated on the rocks is characteristic of this type of ecosystem. However, after 30 minutes going uphill we found an appropriate site where magueyes were growing. These are deciduous trees from dry habitats that lose their leaves during the dry season to let the light go through. That was a good sign, so we started working right away.

An unexpected encounter

To our surprise, planting the new 51 individuals of Leptocereus scopulophilus was not the only accomplishment of our day. Right where we decided to plant them we found two unknown individuals of Ekmanianthe longiflora (the so much wanted Royal oak), with flowers and some immature fruits. We looked for other individuals in the vicinity but without success.

This finding increases the number of known individuals for the royal oak and encourages us to believe that maybe in the future this tree, just like Leptocereus scopulophilus, will go from being rare to be the most known oak of all.

Encontrar dos individuos de roble real (Ekmanianthe longiflora) fue una suerte.

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