Among the plant specimens in Belen’s collection, the fifteen species of cycads are perhaps the rarest. Cycads, often confused with palms because of their leaf structure, are in fact ancient “gymnosperms” dating back to the time of the dinosaurs: imagine a Brachiosaurus and a Stegosaurus munching away on the fern-like leaves in the Quad!
All cycads have a pinnate (i.e. feather-like) leaf structure like that of many ferns and palms. Unlike ferns and palms, however, the leaves of cycads get very thick and leathery. Some also get a blue-grey waxy coating that prevents the plants from drying out and provides protection from insects, such as scales that often plague cycads. Some species form trunks as they age, and there are several varieties in the Quad that are “trunking”. (image 1: Encephalartos lebomboensis)
Cycads are classified as gymnosperms, meaning “naked seeds”. Like many primitive plants they are “Dioecious”, meaning there are male and female plants, and there must be both a male and a female in proximity to produce seed. When seeding, they form cone-structures with seed clusters. The seeds vary in color from yellow to orange or red to black. (image 2: Encephalartos ferox) Although cycads are toxic, many indigenous people, including Florida’s Calusa, Timucua and Seminole tribes, learned to process native Coontie plants (image 3: Zamia pumila/integrifolia) into flour which was used to make bread. Early settlers almost wiped out the native Coontie by commercially producing “Arrow Root” flour from the plants. There is a large grouping of Coontie planted on the backside of the Banyan tree. If you are lucky, you may see an Atala butterfly which relies on the Coontie for larval food. (image 4: Atala butterfly)
Cycads are not as numerous now as they were in the “Age of the Cycads”, during the Jurassic period 200-145 million years ago. However, surviving species are found in most of the tropical and subtropical areas of the world, as well as in South Africa and Australia. They have adapted to a range of habitats, from deserts to rainforests. Belen’s collection includes representative species from Florida (Zamia pumila), Central and South America (image 5: Dioon spp. Zamia spp. and Ceratozamia), Africa (image 6: Encephalartos sclavoi), and Australia (image 7: Macrozamia moorei).
Cycads are extremely long-lived (some specimens live more than 1000 years!) but they are very slow-growing. As many as two-thirds of remaining cycad species are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss and over-collection, i.e. avid collectors remove plants from the wild which reduces breeding stock. Botanical Gardens, such as Belen’s, can serve as a reservoir to conserve some of the rarest species. Go into the Quad and see how many of the cycad species you can find!
Deborah Strelkow is a Registered Landscape Architect (FL#1533) with a master’s degree from FIU. As Principal of HS2G INC, she has over 30 years’ experience in Landscape Architecture with projects in Florida, the Caribbean, Columbia, and Ecuador. She has received numerous awards and several published projects. For an expanded version of this article or more information please refer to www.hs2g.net.