Cycadophytes (Cycads) in the Christopher B. Smith Preserve

Cycadophyte Characteristics: Cycads have been on earth since before dinosaurs. Today, there are three families, 11 genera and approximately 250 species. All live in tropical and sub-tropical latitudes.

Cycads are considered the most primitive of the living seed-bearing plants. They reproduce by seeds, but the seeds do not have shells like magnoliophytes (flowering plants). Instead, the seeds are naked inside cones. Cycads are dioecious, with male and female cones on different plants. Each mature male plant has one or more cones that produce pollen; each mature female has one cone that produces seeds. Typically, weevil beetles are responsible for pollination.

Interactions in the Smith Preserve: Like other plants, cycads convert energy of sunlight to energy other organisms can use. The conversion process is photosynthesis and the energy cycads produce is distributed to animals through the food web. Also during photosynthesis, cycads produce oxygen. In addition, cycads provide habitat for other organisms.

Species Name
Common Name
Zamia furfuracea
Cardboard Palm / Cardboard Cycad
Zamia floridana

Zamia furfuracea

Cardboard Palm / Cardboard Cycad

Zamia furfuracea is a non-native cycad member of Family Zamiaceae (The Coontie Family). Although this plant grows somewhat like a palm and its common name is "Cardboard Palm", it is not a palm. A more accurate common name is "Cardboard Cycad". Cycads are ancient cone-bearing plants.

Cardboard cycads grow erect in full sun and horizontal in shaded areas. In the Smith Preserve, several specimens are growing in partial shade in the understory of the hammock near the southern portion of the east fence.

The very young plants in the 4th photograph were growing in a very shaded area under oaks. Identification of these plants was made from this photograph on January 9, 2014 by Roger Hammer, author of Everglades Wildflowers and Florida Keys Wildflowers.

Zamia furfuracea has a short, sometimes underground trunk up to 20 cm wide and usually scarred with old leaf bases. It grows very slowly when young, but growth accelerates as the trunk matures. The plant grows to a height of 1.3 m and a width of 2 m.

As shown in the first photograph above, leaves radiate from the center of the trunk. The second photograph shows that each leaf is pinnately compound. It is 50 to 150 cm long and has a petiole 15 to 30 cm long. The leaf is composed of six to 12 or more pairs of very stiff (like cardboard), fuzzy green leaflets. Each leaflet grows 8 to 20 cm long and 3 to 5 cm wide. Occasionally, the leaflets are toothed toward the tips, as show in the third photograph above.

Shown a left, the circular crown of leaves resemble fern or palm fronds. The leaves in these photographs are just beginning to unfurl. The fuzzy texture of the leaflets is quite apparent.

Cycad plants are either male or female. Each female plant produces a fairly large rusty-brown cone with ovules as shown at far left. Male plants have smaller cones with pollen (shown at left). Pollination occurs only when Rhopalotria mollis (a belid weevil) carries pollen to the female cones. Zamia furfuraceais and Rhopalotria mollis are totally dependent on one another for survival.

An adult belid female weevil lays her eggs into male cones. Offspring complete their life cycle inside these cones. Emerging adults carry pollen to female cones. Both beetle and cycad were introduced from Mexico.

After pollination, seeds are produced in the female cone. In the photograph at left, a female cone has ripened, and a few of the many crimson-colored seeds are visible. Each seed is 2.5 cm in diameter.

All parts of a cardboard cycad are poisonous to animals and humans, causing liver and kidney failure and eventually paralysis. There is no treatment.

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Zamia floridana


Zamia floridana is a native, evergreen, upright, herbaceous member of Family Zamiaceae. It is neither a fern nor a palm; it is a cycad.

A coontie's growth rate is slow and its large underground stem (caudex) is subterranean. Leaves and cones arise from the stem. The leaves are stiff, recurved, dark green, leathery, pinnate, and up to 97 cm long. Each leaf has five to 30 alternate to opposite pairs of leaflets on a rachis (shaft). Leaflets are up to 15 cm long. Coonties grow .6 to 1.2 m tall and .9 to 1.5 m wide.

Like all cycads, a coontie is a gymnosperm that produces seeds without flowers. It is dioecious, with male and female cones on separate plants. Male cones are long, cylindrical, and clustered in groups of 2 or more. Female cones are stout, egg-shaped, and single. Propagation is by seeds and by daughter plants formed asexually from mother plants.

Potential pests include Chrysomphalus aonidum (Florida Red Scales), Saissetia coffeae (Hemispherical scales), Pseudococcus longispinus (Longtailed Mealybugs), and sooty mold.

In exchange for pollination, coonties provide food for two beetle species, Pharaxonotha zamiae (a clavicorn beetle) and Rhopalotria slossoni (a weevil). Coontie seeds are food for birds and other small animals. The leaves are the larval food of Eumaeus atala florida (Atala Butterfly) and Seiractia echo (Echo Moth).

Florida's indigenous people and early European settlers extracted an edible starch from the coontie's caudex. They used the starch to make bread. Today, it is illegal to collect coonties from the wild.

The photograph at left shows an atala butterfly on a coontie leaf in the Smith Preserve. To learn more about atalas at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Nature Center, click the photograph. This will link you to the Ecotone Trail Directory and more photographs and information.


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© Photographs and text by Susan Leach Snyder (Conservancy of Southwest Florida Volunteer), unless otherwise credited above.

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