Ancient plants at home in modern gardens



Cycads, often described as living fossils, were among the dominant plant species on Earth more than 200 million years ago.

cycadCone-bearing, nonflowering plants related to pines and the remarkable gingko tree, some cycads resemble palms and ferns — though they have no kinship with such plants. With 200 species still extant — though most are extremely imperiled — cycads are native to Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas.

My favorite cycad is Dioon edule — stupidly labeled Mexican palm by some nurseries, but more appropriately called chestnut dioon. This beautiful, slow-growing, slowly clumping, bushy species from Eastern Mexico resembles queen and king sagos (Cycas species) but isn’t susceptible to the cycad scale that afflicts those plants.

Dioon edule is a cold-hardy, drought-tolerant cycad that flourishes in Central Florida on well-drained sites in sun or light-to-moderate shade. As with all cycads, individual Dioons are male or female, but both sexes produce large, grayish reproductive cones.

Cycads in general can be used as specimen plants or combined with other tropical-looking foliage plants and flowering shrubs and trees. In addition to in-ground cultivation, they can be grown in containers for years.

As well as having populated much of the world for a staggering length of time — cycads predated the dinosaurs — individual plants can hang around for impressive periods. In fact, the oldest exotic plant in Florida that I’m aware of is a Dioon edule at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables.

That 84-acre garden, with a palm and cycad collection unrivaled in the continental U.S., is home to a magnificent chestnut dioon that’s logged considerably more miles than most human travelers. How the Mexican plant got to the Edinburgh Botanic Garden is a mystery, but it was purchased — when it was a century old — from that institution in 1867 by Alexander Mitchell, who kept the chestnut dioon in his Milwaukee, Wis., conservatory until 1895.

The cycad’s next owner was Dr. Henry Nehrling, one of Florida’s plant pioneers, who grew the dioon edule at his home in Gotha and then took it with him — in 1918 — to his new residence in Naples. In 1940, Nehrling’s son donated the plant to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, where it has thrived and will soon celebrate its 250th birthday. Dioon edule plants and seeds are available online.

Charles Reynolds, a Winter Haven resident, has an associate degree in horticulture and is a member of the Garden Writers Association of America.

Last modified: November 20, 2014
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