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Cycads from Seed

by Valerie (August 7, 2001)
coontie seed cone
We start a lot of our plants from seed. It is not only economical, but can be fascinating to watch the development as the young plant grows. In my travels to Florida, I've collected seeds from two species of cycad, an ancient group of plants related to conifers.

The smaller type of cycad in our gardens is a native of Florida and is usually called coontie (Zamia pumila). There are a few other common names, like comfort root, Florida arrowroot and contis, but seem to be a plethora of species names that are either synonyms or refer to different related species. These include angustifolia, debilis, floridana, integrifolia, portoricensis, silvicola, and umbrosa. Coontie is a popular landscape specimen plant in Florida, but here it must be protected in the winter. There are also quite a variety of leaf sizes and plant sizes, from very small to huge. coontie leaf

Cycads are gymnosperms and need both a male and a female plant to reproduce. Both plants produce cones, with the female, of course, bearing the seed cones. Pictured above is a mature coontie seed cone. I simply stuck the seeds in the ground and a couple years later noticed that we had a small plant with a single leaf. It has since produced a new leaf each year and now has two at the same time. In the winter I pile leaves on top of it for protection from freezing.

cycad seeds with green anole

The other cycad species we are growing is commonly used Asian import in this area. It is usually called sago palm (Cycas revoluta) and is a beautiful, exotic looking specimen plant with dark, glossy leaves, suitable for protected areas. Other names include Japanese fern palm and king sago. It is relatively freeze hardy, but sometimes sustains damage. The seeds of this cycad are large and red, and are produced in a huge cluster at the center of the plant. The green anole gives some sense of the size of the seeds in the picture at right. I had a number of these seeds and planted them all over in the gardens, where many germinated. We had little cycad plants coming up everywhere, but after the first year or two, many died, probably from too little water before they had developed the large root that helps them through droughts. Now we have 3 plants remaining that are producing one or two progressively larger leaves a year. Growing so slowly, it will be a long time before any of ours are old enough to reproduce.

The growth of a new cycad leaf is a study in grace, as the fronds slowly uncurl, grow, and stiffen.

new cycad frond uncurling cycad frond full grown cycad frond

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