What is a Cycad? An Introduction

By Tom Broome


The most common cycads ( pronounced, si'kad ) in our landscapes are the King Sago "Palm", and the Cardboard " Palm". However, these plants are in no way related to palms. Cycads are an ancient group of plants that date back 250 million years. Cycads are cone bearing plants that are more closely related to pine trees than palms. Palms did not even show up on Earth for another 150 million years. During the age of the dinosaurs, the cycads were the most prevalent plants on Earth.
Cycads are dioecious plants, or in other words, there are separate male and female plants. The female plant produces the seeds, and the male produces cones with pollen in them. Many of the cones on cycads are very ornamental, like the red cone on the Encephalartos ferox in the left corner.
One of the reasons why cycads have survived all this time, is that they can grow in very harsh conditions. Many plants in habitat, grow in sand or even on rock. Some can withstand hard freezes every year, as well as snow. Others, live in areas that have no more rain than a couple of inches per year. With our sandy soils here in Florida, it is hard to grow many types of plants. Cycads make the perfect, easy to maintain plants for our landscapes. In fact, we have a cycad that is native to Florida. The common name for the plant is "coontie", which is a Seminole name. These plants are used to the Florida weather and thrive in our sandy soils. They can grow in the shade, or in full sun. Many cycads are also salt tolerant. Dioon edule, the plant in the right corner, is probably the most cold hardy of all the cycads. In the 1989 freeze, parts of Lakeland Florida had 17°F for a low temperature. Most all the King Sagos totally defoliated, while the Dioon edule only got tip burn. In a particular habitat in Mexico, the Dioons hang over a cliff, and are constantly hit with salt spray from the gulf.
In many areas of the United States, and all over the world, cycads are considered to be somewhat of a status symbol. Cycads can live as long as 2500 years. An old plant can be worth thousands of dollars. Cycads can help you increase the worth of your landscape, and your property. As an example, if you planted two medium sized King Sagos in a new landscape today, in ten years your landscape would be worth a thousand dollars more.
There are many unusual cycads that are perfect for our soils and our weather. These plants can set your landscapes apart from everybody else's on the block. You can also use them near your private sitting area, where you can sit back and enjoy a plant that has been around for millions of years.