Despite being one of the most fascinating plants in Australian home gardens, the cycad is also one of the easiest to grow. This ancient plant also suits a variety of different garden styles, being as much at home in a rainforest garden or Aztec-style desert landscape, as it is in a super slick modern or formal garden.
Cycad prehistoric origin
Sometimes nicknamed ‘dinosaur plants’, cycads appeared on the earth about 300 million years ago and were at their greatest diversity during the Triassic and Jurassic (during the reign of the diplodocus and T-rex). At this time they had a global distribution from Siberia to Antarctica and accounted for up to 20% of the world’s plant life.
Where to grow Cycads
Most cycads are well suited to a tropical or warm temperate climate. They prefer a well-drained soil and a full sun position, however some varieties may prefer some protection from hot, afternoon sun. Most species resent full shade.
How to plant
For best results, prepare the soil before planting. To do this, dig a hole at least 50 percent bigger than the pot size and work in plenty of compost and Searles Kickalong Complete Garden Food. Cycads need good drainage so if you have heavy clay soil, opt instead to plant above ground level in a mound or a raised bed. Once planted, water and mulch well. They dislike wet foliage so try to only water the roots and keep them drier in the winter when evaporation is low.
Cycad Pests and Diseases
One of the most common causes of plant loss is rotting stems or roots caused by overwatering, especially if drainage is poor, so ensure your plant has good drainage. Scale, weevils or chewing insects may damage the leaves, in which case give them a spray with Searles Pest Gun, a natural insecticide suitable for organic gardening.
Cycad seeds are unique in that there is no dormancy period; if the seed is allowed to dry out, the embryo will die so they must be planted immediately. The seed is also quite susceptible to rot in excessively moist conditions, but should otherwise be quite easy to propagate. Planting the seeds in a high quality mix like Searles Seed Raising Mix in a standard pot should bring good results.
Cycad plants are either male or female and the reproductive structures (cones) of each sex are usually quite different in size, shape and even colour. Specialised woody growths on the cones (called sporophylls) bear the sexual parts with the male cone producing pollen and the female bearing ovules which, if fertilised, develop into seeds. Seeds are quite large and have an outer layer (sarcotesta) which is often colourful; red, purple and yellow seeds are common. The colours attract birds and a variety of mammals which help disperse the seeds.
The giant Cycad…
The world’s largest cycad, Lepidozamia hopei is native to north Queensland rainforests and can grow to more than 13m tall. This species is very slow growing with the taller specimens estimated to be 200–300 years old. Early observers of these cycads were perplexed by mysterious ‘left, right, left, right’ indentations up the lower trunks of the seed-bearing, female trees. It has since been established that Aborigines native to the Cairns area had cut these ‘steps’ to enable harvest of the seeds, which needed to be beaten and washed extensively to remove their deadly toxicity before they could be eaten.