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Feature Article: ZAMIA PUMILA

          contributed by: 


Published by the Gulf Coast Chapter of the International Palm Society


    Feature Article: ZAMIA PUMILA

BY:J Taverniti


This issue of Fan and Feather instead of featuring a palm we

will be looking at a cycad: Zamia pumila also is listed as Z.

floridana and commonly known as Coontie. It is the only cycad

native to North America, (not counting Mexico) specifically,

peninsular Florida and three counties in SE Georgia. It was at

one time abundant throughout peninsular Florida but due to it

being a source of food for humans and being very slow

growing it is not very common presently in the wild.

The name 'Coontie' actually is derived from the Native

American word meaning 'flour root'. Another common name

for this plant is 'arrow root', and during the early 1900's it was

widely harvested and processed into starch in factories all

over South Florida. These factories produced starch from

Coontie, some of them up to 10 to 15 tons per day. By 1925

the once vast populations of Coonties were reduced to a small

remnant. In some areas of south Florida there were large

colonies especially near what is now Miami and Ft

Lauderdale. In fact, there were so many in the Ft Lauderdale

area that the Indians called this place "Coontie Hatchee".

The Seminole moved to Florida in the mid 1700s and used

this plant as an important source of food. It was the Seminole

who gave us the name 'Coontie' which as stated above,

means 'flour root.' They processed the Coontie by cutting up

pieces of the root, pounding it nearly to powder, then putting

them through several washes, letting the starch sink to the

bottom. The resultant paste that formed was fermented, and

then dried to a powder and then used to make a flat bread,

called Seminole bread. Nowadays, Coontie are rarely

consumed for food but rather are appreciated for their value

as a landscape plant.

The hardiness zone range for Coontie is 8B to 11, which

encompasses all of Florida, the Gulf Coast and much of the

West Coast as well as the most significant population centers

of Texas and Arizona. Coontie are best suited for partial

shade but do well in full sun. In Florida they are frequently

used in low maintenance landscape situation including urban

highway medians. This is a rugged but subtle accent plant

that boasts a deep green color and unique form. Although a

slow grower, Coontie is very tough, drought resistant and easy

to maintain. And although it is not a palm, in its low growing

profile, its leaf habit suggests a palm look-alike. Speaking of

form, with its arching leaves a single Coontie can stand

upwards of 3 feet and a colony of suckers can slowly form a

mound 5 to 6 feet wide. Coontie do best in soils with

moderate to good drainage. Soil pH is not usually a

limiting factor, and Coontie are considered to be salt

tolerant. The plant stores carbohydrates in a caudex

which allows it to survive relatively long periods without

water. The caudex also makes it possible to sell bare root

plants, which can be a great advantage when shipping

long distances Unfortunately, due to its long tap root in

mature plants, and the fact that Coontie roots are very

sensitive to being disturbed, it is very difficult to dig without

damage to the root and transplanting has a low success rate.

Plants should not be dug from the wild, as it will continue to

deplete the native population and survival rate is low on

these extracted plants. Instead Coontie are readily available

from certain nursery outlets and online. Also, Coontie produce

an abundant seed crop and individuals can be grown from

seed which we'll talk about further along in this article.

Coontie are dioecious plants. The male plants produce

cones that emerge in August and shed pollen in

November and December. Male cones can be up to 16

cm in length and are usually 3-5 cm in diameter.

Female cones emerge at the same time and are

rounded and 14 cm in diameter. Female cones are

generally shorter and always broader than male cones.

Pollinators for Coontie are two different species of

beetle and the wind. At one time there was an

extensive planting of Coontie around the Naval Hospital.

From them, I collected seed and grew the Coontie that I

presently have on my property. Unfortunately, all of

those Coontie were removed when the hospital grounds

were re-landscaped during an expansion project.

Growing your own from seed is the primary way to get

Coontie. The key to Coontie seed germination is

removal of the seed coat residue. The seed coat is

thought to inhibit germination. To do this, collect seed

from female plants when the seed cone begins to break

apart. Soak seed in water for six to eight weeks to

soften the seed coat. After this step place the seeds in

a bucket 1/4 to 1/2 full of uncleared seed. Add sufficient

water to barely cover seed. Use an electric drill

equipped with a long shank and a round wire brush to

agitate the seeds in the bucket. When the water is thick

with seed seed coat residue, empty the bucket into a

strainer or onto a wire mesh screen and wash with a

stream of water. This may take three or four cycles.

After seeds are clean they can be planted in community

pots to save space as the seeds will germinate

erratically over a two year period. Keep the community

pots watered to remain moist. As they germinate and

attain a little size they can be transplanted to single pots

and eventually placed in the ground.

CAUTION: seeds in community pots should be covered

with hardware cloth. I like to cut the wire into a disk that

neatly fits into the top of the pot and can also be easily

removed. Why do this? Because rats and squirrels like

these seeds more than you do and will steal them right

out of the pot even though planted under soil.

There are few pests that bother Coontie. About the only

one of significance is Red Scale, which can be controlled

with horticultural or dormant oil.

A close relative of the Coontie is the Cardboard Palm -

Zamia furfuracea, a species native to Veracruz state of

eastern Mexico. Most of us are familiar with this species

of Zamia. It is an attractive plant with thick, very stiff

leaflets, hence the name cardboard, but is not as cold

Hardy as the Coontie. That said I have gone winters

without it dying back to the ground, but if it dies back it

will send leaves up again when the weather warms.

Unfortunately, specimen plants in the ground rarely

attain any significant size due to periodic freeze backs.

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