Cycads are very hardy plants, requiring minimum attention and are ideal for low-maintenance gardens and xeriscaping

Dinosaurs are the creatures we associate with an unknown, ancient era. But Cycads, bridging the time before dinosaurs and after them up till now, are more ancient, much hardier and hence fittest of the surviving species. Known as ‘living fossils’, they are prehistoric seed plants which first came into being around 270 million years ago, and underwent little change over the ages. What’s more, they served as staple dinosaur diet!

Cycads are the members of taxonomic order Cycadales in the plant kingdom. Now about 150 species of Cycads in 11 genera of three families survive in small populations in the warm regions of several continents, and about half of the species are threatened with extinction. In India, about 10 species of Cycads (all belonging to the genus Cycas ) grow in wild. Cycas beddomei (of Seshachalam hills), and Cycas sphaerica (which grows in parts of Chittoor, Srikakulam and Orissa) are two native endemic species (species with restricted distribution) found in Andhra Pradesh. Cycads have many unusual features like large visible seeds (not hidden inside the fruits) on large female flowering organs (called Cones or Strobili). The individual plants are either male or female. Cycads can live as long as 2,500 years. Though they look similar, Palms and Cycads are altogether different plants taxonomically and morphologically.

Description

Cycads vary greatly in shape and size and grow in various climatic zones from rainforest to semi-desert. They are slow growing succulent plants with attractive foliage. Many Cycads are palm-like trees with stout cylindrical stems supporting a crown of many spirally-arranged, leathery, pinnate leaves. Male or female cones arise from the centre of the leaf rosettes. Although all parts of cycads are toxic, they can provide a food source for some communities, particularly in times of famine. The toxins are removed by careful boiling and washing before use.

Gardening

The elegant form of many Cycads is valued by landscapers all over the world. Especially the blue forms of Cycads are highly valued by growers and plant collectors.

Cycads can take several places in a landscape and can be used in several ways. Large paired plants can be planted in containers or in ground flanking entrances such as gates and driveways. A single large cycad also makes an excellent specimen plant in a landscape, substituting a palm where a large crown is desired without the tall trunk. Smaller cycads can be planted in a group to give an effect of ground cover with an interesting texture. Cycads are integral part of Japanese and Zen gardens.

Cycads can be planted in small gardens where space is limited and consequently plant size is limited. A well-placed container-grown cycad can greatly enhance the garden setting. A few cycads (like certain species of Zamia ) can thrive in the low light and dry atmosphere of indoors. These species have the added advantage of lacking spiny leaves.

Cycads are very hardy plants, requiring minimum attention and being undemanding in their soil, water and other environmental needs and are ideal for the low-maintenance gardens and xeriscaping. They can sustain severe drought conditions and can also resist fire. Cycads will actually grow well in almost any soil medium provided that it is well-drained. A critical factor in growing healthy cycads is maintaining a moist but not wet soil substrate. They respond well to fertilizer and moisture during the growing season. Fertilisers with even NPK balance and supplemented trace elements included in the potting medium provide good results.

Cycads are susceptible to Scale insects, Weevils, chewing insects, larvae of many species of insects and stem rot. Being hardy, they can withstand these problems with minimum pest management practices.

Propagation

Cycads are propagated by fresh seeds. Some species which throw offsets can be propagated by dividing and planting the offsets.

N. Chandramohan Reddy

(The author is a forest officer and presently Additional Commissioner (Urban Biodiversity) in GHMC and can be contacted at ‘nchandramohanreddy@

gmail.com’)