Fairchild’s Tropical Garden Column: Planting cycads will add spice to garden


Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

South Florida’s planting season is quickly approaching. I like to go with a theme. Maybe you want to plant a native garden or a butterfly garden. Or maybe you want to try something different.

Cycads are a great way to add flavor to your yard. You’ve heard about the legendary cycad cones, maybe read about their intensely armored leaves, and are ready to start a new obsession. Well, get your leather, elbow-length gloves out and join the fun.

Cycads are quite distinctive. Once you add them to your yard, your friends will turn green with cycad envy.

Cycads are found across the subtropics and tropics in a wide array of habitats — deserts, rainforests and bogs alike. Extremely slow growing, some cycads can live up to 1,000 years.

While palm-like in growth, cycads are conifers and are more closely related to pines than palms. Individuals are male or female and produce cones that either produce pollen or bear seeds. Most cycads have very specialized pollination systems and rely on beetles from the area in which they are found. It is the strangeness of these cones that draws people to the cycads and makes them a special treat.

A good place to start is the native coontie. After being poked, attacked and brought to tears by cycads, I’ve developed a deep love and appreciation for Zamia integrifolia. The coontie does not have any prickles, thorns or spines. If you have kids or a rambunctious dog, this is your cycad. (Species in the genus microcycas don’t have spines but they are not common horticulturally).

If you’re on the fence about starting a full-blown cycad obsession, the coontie fits nicely into native and butterfly categories as well. This is the host plant for our native atala butterfly, a gorgeous red-bodied, black-winged butterfly that has fluttered back from the brink of extinction. Get a few coonties and plant them close to each other. This way, they can attract more butterflies and, when it’s time, reproduce.

The coontie does best in full sun, and in dry, sandy soil. Don’t bury the bulb too deep — about one centimeter of the bulb should emerge from the ground.

Maybe you want a rough-around-the-edges kind of cycad. For you, I suggest the leather jacket-wearing, bike-riding Encephalartos ferox — definitely the rebel of the cycad world. its enormous cones are bright orange and very flashy. So of course, you move toward them. Just as you get close, you are poked by their spiny leaves. That’s the Encephalartos ferox for you, always leaving you wanting more.

I like to keep mine nice and trim. Invest in a good pair of loppers and an even better pair of gloves. Trim off all but the newest leaves to keep this one under control. Plant E. ferox in a sunny, dry and large spot. They get big so make sure there is enough room around the planting location for it to expand.

But, you’re Goldilocks. The coontie is too cold, the E. ferox is too hot, and you want it just right. The dwarf dioon, Dioon edule, might be your perfect fit.

Don’t let the name fool you, the dwarf dioon is only dwarf in comparison to his massive relatives and is gargantuan compared to the coontie. This dioon can easily get 12 feet tall by 12 feet wide. The dwarf dioon produces large, jaw-dropping cones but its leaves are not nearly as malicious as E. ferox.

Plant the dwarf dioon in the sun in a dry and sandy spot. You won’t have to worry about cold weather; the dwarf dioon can handle temperature down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Whether it’s nice guy coontie, rebellious ferox, sweet spot dwarf dioon or a different cycad altogether, this group of plants will add a nice touch to your garden. They are tough plants that can handle all sorts of conditions. When planning new additions to your backyard, make sure to include a cycad.

Sara Edelman is the palm and cycad manager at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

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