By Robert Kopfstein.
Cycads are perhaps the victim of one of the most common misnomers in the plant world. There are indeed such things as sago palms (genera such as Caryota, Arenga, and Metroxylon), but the plant that most often gets called a sago palm is Cycas revoluta, a Japanese cycad that grows on cliffs on the southernmost island of Japan. It is one of more than 300 identified species of three families: Cycadaceae, Zamiaceae, and Stangeriaceae. Cycads date back 280,000 centuries. (Our common era for dating goes back only 21 centuries.) During that early Permian period there were no flowering plants, but there were ferns that were seed bearing. From these seed-bearing ferns arose the earliest forms of the cycads. Unlike our modern cycads, which have pollen-producing and seed-producing cones, the earliest cycads formed seeds on their trunks. We know this thanks to a relatively abundant fossil record.
Today most cycads grow in a belt around the equator, in areas that are tropical or sub-tropical. They can be found in North America - Florida, the Caribbean, Mexico - Central America, and northern South America. In Asia, they exist in southern China and Japan, Southeast Asia, and the islands of the South Pacific. Australia has many species as do South Africa and Central Africa. Interestingly enough, cycad fossils are also found in what appears to be unlikely locations: England, Utah, Colorado, and southern Argentina for example. These areas were not originally where they are today. Over the eons, continental drift has relocated our landmasses and our climate has changed as well.
An endangered species
All of these cycads are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. All are endangered and protected by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). These plants cannot be moved across borders without proper documentation certifying that the plants were not collected in the wild. What triggered this bureaucratic crackdown? In a word, poaching.
After the 1960's plant collectors began to notice that cycads were unusual and rare. Certain species became "trophies" for the avid plantsman (which is the apt term because cycad aficionados tend to be male, and many of them are aggressive in trying to outdo other cycadophiles). For example, a South African cycad, Encephalartos woodii, was found in 1895 as a single large clump, male, the sole survivor of the species. A couple of stems were moved to the Durban Botanic Garden where they still thrive. E. woodii is now extinct in the wild, and the only way to propagate it is from vegetative offsets, all of which of course are male. The San Diego Botanic Garden has been looking for an E. woodii offset for years—to date, no luck.
Cycads in your garden
For the Southern California gardener, growing cycads is not difficult.
They have several positive features: they require minimal care; they are drought tolerant; they need little fertilizer, and they are slow growing. If you plant one, you do not have to worry about it taking over your landscape at least for forty years. Cycads also can be successfully grown in pots. If you are very concerned about space, this is probably the best way to go. There is an encephalartos in the temperate greenhouse at Kew Gardens which has been in a container since 1775.
Soil requirements for cycads are easy: as long as the soil drains well, the plants will be happy. Normally cycads grow in hilly or mountainous areas on slopes. A mixture of 1/4" pumice, sand, and organic material in equal proportions is a safe bet. Cycads can make a really dramatic statement in any garden. As accent plants, they can provide interesting shapes as well as color. Some cycad leaves are strikingly blue, and cones come in a variety of hues, from brilliant gold to intense red. By having cycads in your garden you add a touch of interest. They lend themselves to topics of conversation, and they allow you to participate in helping to preserve one of the world's endangered groups of plants.