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Cycads: Pictures of Antiquity by Carl Schoenfeld

Cycads are woody plants that superficially resemble palms and tree ferns. They are found around the world in both hemispheres in tropical and subtropical zones. There are 11 genera of Cycads, some of which are Zamia and Dioon. In the mainland United States we have one species of Cycad – Zamia floridana.

Male Dioon
Male Dioon plant

It is a native of Florida and extends into southern Georgia and is referred to as Cootie. It is used widely in Florida as a drought tolerant landscape accent. Here at Peckerwood the Florida Coontie was the first Cycad tried; it has proliferated, setting enormous fruit bearing cones with bounties of fertile seed. That led the way for others.

In 1988 John Fairey and I collected seed of Chamal (Dioon edule var. angustifolia) in northeastern Mexico. These germinated and after twelve years are about 16 inches tall and have about eight leaves atop a small swollen stem (caudex). Cycads are extremely slow growing to our eyes but we must understand that they have been around for over 200 million years. Notice their distinctive character which reflects their antiquity.

Photos show them in habitat with close-ups of the flowering or reproductive structures in both sexes. A detail of the fertile cone with maturing seed reiterates their simplicity. The last image is a detail of the rigid leaf, which is retained for some number of years.

Female Dioon plant
Female Dioon

Dioons are ancient woody plants and some very large specimens could possibly be several hundred years old. They inhabit steep hillsides where the soils are skeletal and poor. In areas were the decomposed shale is deep they proliferate and create an unreal prehistoric setting, dominating the environment. Chamal can also be found in more hospitable soils and shelter, but there they are small and scattered. Interestingly, Dioon edule specifically has the ability to contract its stem underground as it grows — thus maintaining relativity in the amount of trunk exposed. One suggested explanation for this strange (unplant-like) activity is to reduce its exposure to environmental stress and predation — remember these plants were around during the time of dinosaurs. Also, they may go through prolonged periods of rest, revealed as narrowing in the diameter of the trunk. Some feel that these plants are not regenerating at this time. Are they possibly endangered or just taking a rest that will wait out our short impatient lifetimes? The greatest danger to their existence is ignorance and apathy. They truly are unequalled and intriguing living organisms that count the eons of time while we count the seconds.

— Carl Schoenfeld