Photo: Florida Hikes, Flickr Creative Commons
Over three hundred species of cycads range throughout the warm regions of the world. Superficially, they look similar to palms but they have an ancient lineage with fossil records dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. Their most distinctive feature is that cycad seeds are produced in cone-like structures called strobili.
One species, coontie is native to Florida. Its common name comes from the name used by Native Americans when colonists arrived. In Florida, it ranges from the Keys to St. Johns County. Botanists have changed their interpretation of this species through the years. Several species have been described in Florida alone. At another time, this plant and its Caribbean relatives were all lumped together under the name Zamia pumila. Today, Zamia integrifolia seems to be the most widely accepted scientific name for this plant.
Coontie has a branching stem below ground with arching, dark green, compound leaves that grow to a few feet tall. Seed bearing strobili are brown as they develop but fall apart to reveal bright orange to red seeds at maturity. Plants produce either pollen or seeds so the right two are needed for fertilized seeds to develop. It is a durable landscape plant for the garden growing in sun or shade in any reasonably well-drained soil. It grows well with irrigation but does not thrive in a wet site. Single specimens make attractive small accent plants. Mass plantings can be used as a tall groundcover. The dark foliage makes a nice background for small flowering plants.
Gardeners should wear waterproof gloves when handling coontie and other cycads. Their sap contains cancer-causing and neurotoxic compounds. Despite these nasty toxins, people around the world have mashed the stems and seeds of cycads to produce food. Typically, the mashed material was washed repeatedly to remove the toxins – or most of them – before baking or cooking into a porridge. In fact, Florida’s coonties were harvested commercially by colonists and residents until 1925 when the USDA banned its use. It was called Florida arrowroot and was prized as a flour for baking. In the past, its seeds were strung as beads. While most of its non-landscape uses have come to an end, coontie leaves are used today as cut foliage by florists.
You can see coontie and some of its relatives at the Jacksonville Arboretum and Gardens in the palm garden along the lake loop and in a few other locations.
By Chuck Hubbuch