Over fifty species of Zamia
are native to warm regions of North and South America.
These plants may resemble ferns or small palms but they are a type of
gymnosperm known as a cycad. Cycad fossils date back before the dinosaurs to
about 300 million years ago. Modern cycads often live in difficult environments
where the competition from other plants is low. Similar to pines, cycads
produce cone-like structures called strobili. Seed-bearing and pollen-bearing
strobili are borne on separate plants, a condition termed dioecious.
This plant, coontie, is native to much of Florida
and is reported to range into Georgia.
Although the plant contains some nasty toxins (neurotoxins and carcinogens,)
its underground stems and roots were crushed, thoroughly washed and prepared as
a starchy food by native Americans and early colonists. Despite this former
use, anyone coming in contact with the sticky sap of this plant should wash it
Coonties have interesting symbiotic relationships with other
organisms. A tiny weevil pollinates the plants and uses the pollen-bearing
strobili as food for its larvae. If the larvae try to eat the seed-bearing
strobilis, they are poisoned. The weevil and the coontie is each dependent on
the other for survival. In addition, nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria live in root
nodules of the coontie.
Coontie thrives in dry, upland areas where wildfires are
common. The underground stem sends up new leaves quickly after a fire. Because
these dry areas make good places to build our homes and businesses, coontie is
listed as an endangered species in Florida.
Light: full sun to part shade
Water: very drought tolerant when established
Soil: well-drained, otherwise no special requirements
This is an easy plant for northeast Florida. It grows well in a wide range of conditions, provided the soil is not wet.