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Cycads in the Landscape
The Usage of Encephalartos, Dioons, Zamia, Ceratozamia, Macrozamia, Cycas and other Genera in Your Garden Landscape Design
by Phil & Jesse Bergman


This article is an introduction to cycad and their usage in a landscape design. This article is recommended reading for the cycad novice.
(note: 4 part comprehensive article.  Click at bottom below to see next page)


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.landscape design Because of these factors, cycads are amongst the most sought-after and coveted plants for botanical gardens, public plantings, and private collectors. Curators at 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.


cycad logo


Living Fossils
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.

Encephalartos whitelockii

Encephalartos whitelockii
(click photo to enlarge)


Cycad Anatomy
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.  

The 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 offsetcycad illustration of leaves, roots, trunkits 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. 

Cycad Roots
Various 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 become evident.      



Ceratozamia zaragosae leaves

Ceratozamia zaragosae, leaf detail
(click photo to enlarge)


zamia skinneri red leaves

Zamia skinneri
(click photo to enlarge)

Leaves 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 identified.

sago palm female cone

Cycas revoluta, female cone
(click photo to enlarge)


zamia inermis male cones

Zamia inermis, male cones
(click photo to enlarge)

Cycad Cones
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 and fascinating. 
(continued with more information, click below to right)          

encephalartos horridus cone female

Encephalartos horridus, emerging cone
(click photo to enlarge)


 (CLICK: Continued on next page)



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