Coonties: Captivating Cycads
What's to like?
Coonties are spritely and graceful in their form, tough as the dickens, bright green all year, and host plant for the beautiful blue atala
hairstreak butterfly. In fact, coonties are the only larval food for atalas. You can use them as specimen or accent plants, mass them together for ground cover, or use them in a line as a border. And to top that off, they have an interesting sex life. A subject we hardly ever get to talk about around here. More on that later. See more in Roger Hammer's 1995 Palmetto article, The Coontie and the Atala Hairstreak.
Slow growers, coonties are more expensive to buy than some other natives by relative size, but don't let that put you off. They are well worth the investment. They can be planted in full sun or fairly deep shade. They thrive in a variety of soils, preferring some organic content, but doing okay in nutrient poor soil, too. They have a high tolerance for salt winds, although they don't like to stand around in salty or brackish water. They don't like to be in any soil that is continually moist. One of their big assets is that they are extremely drought tolerant once established. They can be from one to three feet high, and eventually they grow as wide as they are tall. Some older specimens have reached greater heights, but in general, in the home landscape, you can count on them holding on at about three feet.
Coonties can be susceptible to sooty mold or scale. However, this is easily controlled. Just whack them back to the ground, dispose of the scaly leaves, and the plant will merrily re-generate. Same thing if the atala babies eat them up; just wait, they come back.
Their regenerative ability is due its tuberous root, or underground stem. (By the way, the size of the root is what makes it difficult to transplant older specimens.) This root was once a source of food in Florida, but don't try it at home - it needs special preparation to remove cycasin, a poisonous substance. The Calusa and Timucua, pre-Seminole Native Americans, learned how to macerate and wash the coontie tubers to make bread.
In the mid 1800's the root was milled at a plant down in Miami by the ton for the starch it yielded, decimating native populations which were once abundant. Later the plant was "discovered" by the landscape industry, and it was nearly curtains for the coontie. Now, it is protected in the wild, and happily, it is widely available from growers.
Coonties look a lot like ferns, but they are actually cycads, like the cardboard plant and the sago palm. Cycads, back in the day of the dinosaur, were the dominant plant type, and many people call them "living fossils."
When it get to the latin name, experts agree on starting with 'Zamia,' but as I mentioned earlier, the names "pumila," floridana," and "integrifolia," are used after zamia by different sources. When you go to buy one, you will be getting a native coontie no matter which name is used, as long as your source is a reliable one. Highly recommended! Go out and get growing!
|Single coontie about five years old|
|Coontie intermixed with horizontal cocoplum for textural interest|
|Coontie forming border along pathway|