Cycads are living fossils and they make beautiful additions to many landscapes.
Cycads are called fossils because they have remained unchanged for over 200 million years. By comparison, our modern apple tree is a mere 4,000 year resident. Dinosaurs from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods are believed to have used cycads as their primary food source. While these plants were abundant in prehistoric times, they are now seriously threatened and could use a little help.
While cycads look like a cross between a palm tree and a fern, they are more closely related to pine trees and Ginkgo plants, botanically speaking. Cycads feature a thick trunk that does not branch and a crown of large, stiff evergreen leaves that grow directly from the top and center of the trunk in a rosette formation. Cycad leaves are very large, when compared to the trunk, and are pinnate, which means they are shaped like a feather. The Sago Palm (king sago, sago cycad, Japanese sago palm) is the most well known variety of this family. Breadtree and the Jamaican Sago are two other varieties. Cycads can be as small as a few centimeters or as tall as several meters.
Like pine trees, cycads are gymnosperms. This means they produce naked seeds in cones. These seeds are pollinated by specific varieties of beetles. Plants are either male or female, a condition called dioecious. Once a seed germinates, the plant may live for 1,000 years, but it grows very slowly. Just as legumes have evolved with soil microorganisms to fix nitrogen, cycads have a similar arrangement with a bacteria that lives in its roots.
Currently, there are less than 300 existing species, most of them found in tropical and subtropical areas. Most varieties of cycad are critically endangered, according to the CITES Appendix. Microcycas, in particular, has only 600 living specimens. These primitive plants are dying off for a variety of reasons, including habitat loss, over-collecting, forestry, and pesticide use. Since cycads rely on specific beetles for pollination, the death of the beetles leads to the death of a species. Armored scale infestations have also become a serious threat.
Cycads are strikingly beautiful plants and they require little or no care, once they are established. In fact, watering a cycad is a bad idea. Simply leave them alone and they will be fine. By planting cycads in your landscape, you are increasing the global population of this threatened form of plant life. Once your cycads produce seeds, you can share them with friends and neighbors. Before you do that, however, you need to know that sago palms can be dangerous.
WARNING: Before you start trimming or working around a sago palm, you need to know that these plants have a formidable defense system. The seeds are extremely toxic. If eaten by a cat or dog, sago palm seeds cause death 50% to 75% of the time. And the leaves have very sharp tips which can cause severe allergic reactions. Take my word for it on this one. It's not a fun lesson.
These plants need our help, but they should be handled with caution, or not at all.
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