Shady Way Gardens Bits and Briefs December 2003
CYCADS & THEIR FRIENDS

DECEMBER

With the arrival of December, many plants are going dormant or are taking on the 'winter look' that many people find unattractive.  Lantana, Ruellia, Mexican Bird-of-Paradise, Arizona Yellow Bells are a few of the plants that are not going to look like their gorgeous summer selves through the cold months.  Try to resist the urge to severely cut back these plants until spring because the foliage and stems, though unsightly, help protect the plant from frost damage.

CYCADS

The majority of people want a taste of the tropics somewhere in their living area.  A plant that has been filling their need both indoors and outdoors is the Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta).  Since they look much like a small palm you'd never guess their real kinfolk are pines and spruces.  They belong to a group of plants known as Cycads, a group that flourished worldwide a couple of hundred million years ago but now occurs sporadically in tropical and semi-tropical areas.  Instead of flowers they produce cones for reproduction, with male and female cones borne on separate plants.  Although not responsible for the decrease in overall Cycad numbers through the eons, man has, of course, had a hand in the decimation of recent populations.  At present it is illegal to dig up or sell any Cycad out of its native habitat.  They must be produced from seed or offsets and are very slow growing.  Most only produce one flush of new leaves a year.  Except for the widely available Sago Palm (native to Japan), the Cardboard Palm (Zamia furfuracea), and a couple of species of Dioon, most Cycads are unavailable in nurseries and must be purchased from specialty growers. Most large ones are extremely pricey but would make an elegant gift for that special plant collector friend!

Cycads are generally fairly easy to care for, especially the common Sago Palm.  It will grow and look good under light conditions from indoors to full sun outdoors, although it probably looks its best in filtered sun outdoors.  All appreciate well drained soil and regular watering through the hot months.  They can endure long periods of drought and some are quite frost tolerant.  We have a Dioon edule, a Mexican native, that's been planted in full sun for years and watered only when we remembered (meaning not very often!) and still looks pretty good or only just a hair rough.  With their slow growth any Cycad makes an excellent container plant.  Sago Palms as bonsai specimens are common in Japan.

Something of a slightly more esoteric interest about Cycads is their roots.  They have two types of roots, your regular kind and another kind that have blue-green algae (technically Cyanobacteria) growing inside them.  These guys get a nice comfortable place to live and in turn provide nitrogen for the Cycad.  During the seedling stage, specialized roots actually grow upwards to the soil surface where the cyanobacteria take up residence.  They are called coralloid roots because they are lumpy and branching like coral.  We have to confess that when repotting a Dioon, we saw bunches of these squirrelly roots everywhere and thought "Oh no! It's got some weird root disease!"  Since the plant looked fine we left it to its own devices.  Now we know it was just doing what it was supposed to do.  Even if there's nothing new under the sun, there's always something new to learn under the sun!

Instead of Christmas shopping, we've been reflecting on how challenging it is to garden in the low deserts, especially during this past year.  In spite of great temperature extremes, low  humidity, impenetrable soils, voracious animals and insects, many wonderful gardens exist here.  A few of the public places to visit for inspiration include Boyce Thompson  Arboretum in Superior, Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, Mesa Community College Campus, Glendale Library, Central Arizona College in Casa Grande, ASU Campus in Tempe, Tohono Chul Park in Tucson, Tucson Botanical Gardens, U of A Campus in Tucson. Check out the Greek Orthodox Monastery gardens south of Florence.  They have some Bismarckia nobilis palms that'll knock your socks off!!!

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Web Comments george@mswn.com September 13, 2004 Shady Way Nursery 2004