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Cycads in the Landscape by Phil Bergman, Page 3


Usage of Cycads in the Landscape


Many species of cycads are very adaptable to the garden environment and can be grown in diverse conditions. Many people are familiar with the common Sago Palm, Cycas revoluta. This species is grown throughout the world and is easily obtained commercially. In the United States, it is being used in at least five or six states as a routine landscape item. Because of the Sago Palms popularity, a huge interest has developed in trying other species of cycads. For these people there is great news! There are lots of cycads you might be able to grow, and some of them are absolutely gorgeous and do quite well in most gardens.  Before you actually pick specific cycads for your garden, first review some of the basic cultural concerns below.  Also, look at as many photos as possible to decide which plants would work best in your garden.  


Encephalartos altensteinii

Example of Garden: Encephalartos altensteinii
(click photo to enlarge)

Cycad Culture - Basics

Cycads Like Good Drainage   
In general, cycads like good draining soil and do not want to be over-watered. A nice sandy or loamy soil is ideal. A sticky, continually wet soil would be undesirable. Cycads major enemy is rot, and rot is promoted by continually wet, poorly draining soil.  If you know you have poor drainage, you must do something about it or your plants will be at risk.  Elevated planter areas, downward penetration of the planting hole through the impervious layer, or lateral diversion canals can provide solutions.  Or, perhaps amending the soil with coarse sand or decomposed granite might work.  Make sure sprinklers are not going off too often and do not continual wet the crown of the plant.  

Most Cycads Prefer Full Sun
Unless you live in a far interior desert-type climate, you should assume that the majority of your cycads would prefer full sun.  There are very few species that thrive in dark garden locations.  Following this section, examples are given for cycads that prefer filtered light.  This would include tropical Zamias, E. villosus and E. ferox, and many Ceratozamias.  Be aware that plants that like full sun in a coastal environment might need some protection in a hotter, desert area.  If you have a blue Encephalartos, it probably will do best in full sun.  

Severe Cold is Hard on Cycads
In terms of cold, some species tolerate freezes and even temperatures into the mid to low 20s F (approximately -6.3 C).   Sometimes, only the leaves suffer from cold, whereas the caudex survives and a new set of leaves later emerge.  If the weather is severe enough, the caudex freezes and the plant is lost.  Therefore, protect the stem from severe cold if needed.  This can be done with protective wrapping, mulch, etc.   



Maintain Your Sun
If a species you plant is demanding of full sun, make sure adjacent plants don't obstruct the sun. Species that need full sun will often stall if they don't get enough light. Realize that a large species may overshadow a smaller adjacent species, thus denying the smaller plant from its required sunlight. This is particularly important if you are mixing your cycads among your palms. Many palm species quickly shoot overhead and can turn a bright area into a dark environment.

Don't Over-water Your Cycads
In general, cycads like for their soil to dry out a bit and don't want to be over-watered.  Too much water causes rot.  Avoiding too frequent of watering and giving good draining soil will usually keep the grower out of trouble.  Tropical Zamias may be an exception to this rule, as they can tolerate more moisture and humidity.  But, most cycads don't want their feet to stay wet.  Also, attempt to water the soil and not the plant. Frequent overhead watering into the crown of the cycad can lead to rot and fungal problems. Soil irrigation or bubblers are often a better choice. Overhead frequent misting of many genera should be avoided.

Many people love the blue color of certain cycad species such as E. horridus, princeps, trispinosus, lehmanii, etc.  To get this color, the plant needs sun.  In the shade, often the blue color is muted or the leaf turns green.  You might also see a "blue" cycad turn green inside of a greenhouse, especially if the environment is humid.  The solution is to get such plants outside in the sun.  Or, get more light and less humidity into your greenhouse.  Remember that the blue color on "blue" cycads comes from a protective wax on the leaves that the plant produces to prevent desiccation.  Without sun or with high humidity, sometimes the plants don't have to worry about desiccation; they won't dry out in this environment.  Therefore they don't stay blue because they don't make the wax.  

If you are one who likes the blue leaf color, make sure to pick species that have potential for this color.  And, if you are along a coastal area, give full sun to these species.   If you are looking for other colors in your cycads, remember that some plants will have brown or red-tinged emergent leaves.  You'll see this is Zamias and Ceratozamias.  These leaves, however, eventually turn to green.  Some species will emerge "silver" and then turn more green.  This is seen with Ceratozamia miquelliana and whitelockiana.  Also, remember that some plants produce very colorful cones.  The female cone of E. ferox is literally fire engine red.       


Unfortunately, there are some who feel that your plants are their plants.  They have such low ethics that they will steal plants from your collection or a botanical garden.  Always be aware of this risk and plant accordingly.  Backyard plantings are certainly safer from a theft point of view.  Also, if you notice someone has plants that you feel are suspicious, contact any local cycad nursery for their help or contact your local government officials.    

assorted cycads

Example of Garden: Assorted cycads
(click photo to enlarge)


assorted cycads and plants

Example of Garden: Assorted cycads and succulent plants
(click photo to enlarge)


Decide What Cycads You Like
Having read the above sections on the various types of cycads, one should first decide what look in cycads he prefers. The Cycad Photo Gallery at this website gives the reader an extensive resource to review pictures of many species. One thing that is nice about cycads is that the grower can predict what the cycad will look like and how large it will eventually get if he can grow it successfully. Therefore, when you look at a photograph, you can see what it should look like in your garden. 
So, you should first determine if you like the general shape of the plant and its characteristics.

Then, decide if you can tolerate plants with prickly leaflets. Next, determine if you have room in your garden for a particular species. Also, if you are limited in space, pick a smaller species. Thus, you can come up with a list of species that you find appealing and would like to add to the garden.






Choosing a Cycad for Your Garden 
Pick a cycad species that is adaptable to your garden environment. In selecting cycads, chose species that you can successfully grow. For instance, if you live in a very cold area, you should consider certain species of Dioons or Macrozamias. Tropical Zamias would not be right for you.  Or, if you have bitter cold, it is possible that no species can be grown outdoors in your area.  Also, if you live far inland in unobstructed harsh sun or in a desert area, Dioons or Macrozamias might work better. Ceratozamias and Zamias typically want some sun protection and would be a poor choice for full sun in your garden. If you live in a tropical wet climate, Zamias, Ceratozamias, or Central African Encephalartos might prove ideal. Many Dioons and Macrozamias may prove difficult to be grown well in wet, tropical areas.  For those of you lucky enough to live in the coastal area of Southern California, there is a multitude of species that you can grow. 

Having read the above, you might find it confusing to know exactly which species is right for your area. Every reader has his own set of conditions and questions about what is right for him. Therefore, utilize a wonderful resource available to you: a cycad nurseryman who probably can answer your questions with ease.  Our nursery, like other specialty cycad nurseries, has decades of experience in growing cycads and can offer you cultural information on which species are best for your specific locality. Cycads in general are quite adaptable to many conditions, but a little cultural advice can go a long way when selecting plants to put in the ground.


Space Requirements
As mentioned above, when cycads are grown well, the hobbyist can predict how large his plant will eventually get. Therefore, you must decide if you have enough room for any given species. Macrozamia moorei, Encephalartos transvenosus and whitelockii, Lepidozamia perofskyanna and many other species make huge plants. You need to offer them enough room. Planting such a species two feet from a walkway would not be appropriate. It will take decades for these species to grow overhead. For this location, pick a smaller growing plant for such a location.  Likewise, don't expect a major landscape statement from a Ceratozamia hildae, a rather small cycad. The latter would be inappropriate as a major statement in the middle of a garden lawn. Our photo gallery can assist you in determining eventual size of a given species. Once again, an experienced cycad dealer can offer this information off the top of his head.

Decide If You Like the Prickles
Some people cant stand prickly plants. Others adore them. One of the different things about many species of cycads is that their leaves or petioles are prickly. At the nursery, we are almost immune to these prickles and walk past plants without an afterthought. But, if you really don't like points on the plants, you have three choices. First is to not purchase such a plant. Second, plant them away from a walkway or thoroughfare so that you are not near the plant and can admire it from afar. Third is to pick a species that is minimally or not prickly at all. Most enthusiasts merely plant prickly species further into the garden such that one is not walking closely by them.  This can be an important decision when you plant prickly plants. If too close to a walkway, one could poke oneself in the eye. Therefore, do be careful in locating your plants.


prickly encephalartos

Encephalartos species with prickles.

Considering Establishing Colonies of Plants
Although you might not be thinking about production of seed right now, it may prove to your advantage to establish colonies of one species in the same proximity of your garden.  Remember that you need a male and a female plant to set seeds.  Pollinating cycad cones is not that difficult and is quite satisfying.  Having colonies of the same species would give you the potential for producing seeds on these rare plants.  As a family of plants, cycads are endangered and seed production is very limited. So, how do you know if you have a male, female, or both?  If it's a coning size specimen, the person selling the plant may know.  But, if it's seed grown and has never coned, there is no way of predicting the sex of the plant.  The latter is usually the case.  Statistically, it takes five seed grown plants to pretty much guarantee that you will have both sexes.  Remember, with two plants, you only have a 25% chance of getting both sexes.    You'd think that two or three plants would do it, but statistically it takes five to give a high percentage of both sexes.  With vanishing natural habitats, your efforts at seed production may prove to be more important than you think.  Therefore, do think about establishing colonies and pollinating those cones!   


Add Diversity to Your Garden
Most cycad enthusiasts recommend utilizing many different genera of cycads in your garden landscape. For shadier areas, utilize Ceratozamias, Zamia, Lepidozamias and some Cycas. For bright hot areas in the garden utilize Encephalartos, Dioons, Macrozamias and some Cycas. The point is that inspired landscape designers like utilizing all the different types of cycads available. The reason for this is that it gives diversity and contrast to the garden. It creates a garden of distinction. It makes your garden different. Mixed among other types of plants such as unusual palms, these various cycad groups truly give a unique appearance to any garden. Also, diversity does add more enjoyment to the gardening experience. 

There are a few cycads that are very common and many of you have seen.  The Sago Palm is probably the most available and sold species of cycad in the world. It's not unusual to see them throughout new housing developments and in almost every nursery around.  Its frequent usage, especially with the commonly available palms, has often been described by many as Home Improvement Center Landscape. The common formulae for such stores is:  A Queen Palm, a Pigmy Date Palm, and a Sago Palm.  We like to think that life can be more fun than that.  And, it's a lot more fun to look at.  Another commonly available cycad is the Zamia furfuracea  Known as the "cardboard palm", it is actually a cycad, not a palm. You will find that most specialty cycad growers grow very few, if any, of these common cycads.  


Not counting these two very common species of cycads, Encephalartos are by far the most popular type of cycads among collectors. It seems that every cycad enthusiast just has to have an Encephalartos horridus. And, from there, they want all the other Encephalartos species. The reason for this is that Encephalartos have many different appearances in terms of texture, color, leaf form and size. And, Encephalartos tend to perform well and can be grown large in most gardens. There are some collectors who only collect this genus. The second most popular cycad would probably be the genera Cycas. This genus is very tropical and lush. After these two, enthusiasts are split among Dioons, Ceratozamias, Lepidozamias and Zamias. Utilization of these many genera of cycads will definitely make your garden different from anyone else in your neighborhood.


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Last modified: November 03, 2018

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