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There is no other group of plants commercially
available that are as rare as cycads. It is not only because of their
rarity that these plants are admired, but also because their extraordinary
beauty and unusual appearance.
of these factors, cycads are amongst
the most sought-after and coveted plants for botanical gardens,
plantings, and private collectors.
large botanical gardens will tell you that cycads
are the most special acquisition of their collection. And, for the
consumer, cycads are a fantastic landscape idea. This article is quite
extensive, four separate parts. As you read, you will find how
Encephalartos, Cycas, Ceratozamia, Dioons, Macrozamia, Zamia and other
genera can be used in the landscape in a very beautiful fashion.
Cycads have been increasing in popularity because of their unique and
distinctive appearance. There is no other group of plants that is quite the same. In
gardens, they are elegant and they complement many other types of plants in
the landscape design. In the wild, cycads are mixed among a wide array of endemic vegetation.
It would be unusual to see just cycads in any natural habitat. Instead,
they are distributed among palms, hardwood trees, succulent plants and other
types of native vegetation. This tendency to be a companion plant is the reason
why cycads are
an excellent addition to most landscape designs. Depending on your local
climatic conditions, a well-rounded tropical garden should have a mixture of cycads, palms and other tropical
plants--for example, in the rainforest there is not just one type of plant growing, but a
variety of various plants which truly create the tropical effect.
Cycads are a family of plants that predate the Jurassic era. One can find
primitive fossils of cycad species still extant today. In
other words, many cycads have changed very little over the last 200 millions years or more. They were here when the dinosaurs
were; but unlike the dinosaurs, many cycad species persisted nearly
unchanged and are observed around the world growing in the same
fashion that they grew in millions of years ago. In the Jurassic period there were many more species of cycads than
there are today.
Cycads were a dominant plant type found during that era. Because they have continued to survive,
cycads are referred to
as living fossils. No doubt, there has been evolution to accommodate
this family of plants to many diverse habitats, from tropical
rainforests to dry grasslands and desert climates.
This adaptation has given us a wide,
diverse group of plants that can survive in many different areas. Thus,
there are many living fossils that grow nicely in the different
climatic conditions we see throughout the world.
The Seeds of a Cycad
Although commonly grown with palms, ferns, and other tropical plants,
cycads are not related to palms or ferns.
The common name of "Sago Palm" is misleading because cycads are not
palms at all. Cycads are seed
bearing, woody plants classified as gymnosperms (woody, cone-bearing
plants) and most closely related to conifers (cone-bearing evergreens).
Cycads are dioecious meaning
they have both male and female cones on separate plants in the same
species. They produce seeds and reproduce utilizing motile male
sperm in the pollen.
Caudex of a Cycad
The woody trunk of a cycad is called the caudex. They can vary
considerably in size. Some are the size of an orange where others have
massive columnar trunks that go nearly fifty-feet into the air. At the
top of the stem emerge the leaves. These trunks can be single or
multiple stem or branch. Cycads can also establish basilar offsetits that, with time, give the appearance of a
clustering or multi-trunked plant. These offsets can occur at ground-level or on the trunk,
thus eventually establishing a branched appearance. A portion of the
trunk is subterranean, giving stability to (the often) large and heavy
stem. With some species, the trunk is almost entirely subterranean (below the
ground). The theory is that this may offer protection from fire.
types of roots extend from the bottom of the caudex into the ground or
more superficially along the surface of the ground. The main or large primary root is
called a tap root; secondary roots extend from the primary root.
There is another type of root structure as well. These are called coralloid (actually look like coral) roots, which are
apparent near the surface of the ground. These roots have a specialized function
which is absorbing nutrients (mainly nitrogen). It is known that the major root on cycads can
be contractile, thus allowing the roots to pull the plant into
the ground. It is not uncommon for one digging a plant to find that
there is a significant amount of stem below the ground that was not
appreciated on initial viewing. The important thing about cycad
roots is that, when the plant is doing poorly, the problem is often in
the roots. When handling bare root cycads, always be careful not
to bruise or damage the roots. Also, be careful to avoid
over-watering, as root rot can set it and not be apparent in the
leaves and trunk. Only when it is too late does the root rot
of a Cycad
The leaves of cycads are varied in terms of size, number, shape and
color. Leaves attach proximally to the upper end of the trunk. Some
plants have a small number of leaves. Others can throw fifty to one
hundred leaves at once as a huge swirl of foliage. Some leaves are
twelve inches long; others can be over twenty feet. The leaves are
composed of a central petiole/rachis with offsetting leaflets. Some
species like certain Cycas and Bowenia can have
multipinnate (branching leaves). The leaflets can be simple, near round,
huge and flat, thin or needle-like, or corrugated, like "ruffles"
(with ridges) potato chips. They can be soft-edged or extremely prickly with many spines.
They also vary in color from lime green to dark green and gray to
powder-blue. The leaves can be straight or recurved, erect,
horizontal, or dependent. The leaves can be glossy or dull, clean or
hairy. Some leaves emerge a brown or reddish color and later turn to
green. Leaves on mature plants may look entirely different than the
leaves on juvenile plant. It is by the appearance of the trunk, leaflets
and leaves that we typically identify plants visually. However, it is
by the reproductive parts (cones) that the plants are taxonomically
Cycads are not "flowering
plants". They produce either male or female reproductive
parts called cones. This is quite unique for a tropical plant
(even though they are xerophytic from a water point of view). They bear a resemblance to the common pine
cone. These cones emerge as one or more organs from the terminal
portion of the trunk. Male and female cones look different, thus
allowing us to determine the sex of any given plant on most
species. Female cones tend to be larger in diameter whereas
males are more narrow and sometimes more elongated. There are
sometimes a greater number of male cones compared to female cones on a
given species. The male cones develop pollen, which is typically
distributed to a female by natural vectors such as insects and
beetles. Wind dispersion of pollen may play a role. Seeds
develop inside the female cones and, if pollinated successfully,
mature inside the cone and will eventually germinate to produce a
small seedling. It is the production of seeds that excites many
collectors, as this gives them a way to produce more plants.
Cycads do not always set a cone every year. Seeds may take many
months to mature on the cone and often require an
"after-ripening" period (which can be months and is variable
among species) even after the seeds have been either collected from
the cone or naturally dropped to the ground. Cones are various
colors. With Encephalartos, there are species that
produce yellow, red, brown and green cones. All are beautiful
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