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A cycad plant in a tropical garden
Have you ever wondered what plants looked like back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, millions of years ago? A group of plants known as cycads existed even before the dinosaurs – and unlike the dinosaurs, they are still around today!


What you need to know about cycads

Name: cycads.

Height: varies according to species, from less than 1m up to 20m tall.

Foliage: compound pinnate fronds arising from thick soft stems or trunks. Usually green, grey or silver. 

Climate: most varieties naturally occur in tropical and sub-tropical environments, in areas of moderate to high rainfall. 

Soil: well-drained, sandy soils in the garden. A premium potting mix for indoor palms. 

Position: full sun to shade. 

Flowering and fruiting: individual male and female plants produce male and female fruiting cones. After fertilisation, the female plants produce large, brightly coloured poisonous seeds on seed-bearing leaves. 

Feeding: use a controlled-release fertiliser in spring. 

Watering: will vary according to the individual species. Usually once a week, and more frequently during the hot summer months.

Appearance and characteristics of cycads

Cycads are ancient plants resembling palms and tree ferns. Fossils of cycads have been discovered that date back to 280 million years ago. Cycads were the predominant vegetation during the Jurassic Period, which is often referred to as “The Age of Cycads”. Since that time, their numbers and spread have declined, with many species now endangered in the wild.

Cycads have a crown of large compound leaves on top of soft thick stems or trunks. There are species with majestic green, blue-grey and silver fronds suitable for growing in most tropical, desert and landscape situations. Cycads are often seen potted in pairs at the entrance to a building or as individual specimen plants.

Green cycad fronds in a garden

Cycad varieties

Cycads can instill a lush jungle or tropical feel to the garden, an Asian-inspired theme or even a harsh desert setting. Here are some of the best varieties to choose:

Cycas: include the popular Cycas revoluta or sago palm from the Ryukyu Islands in Japan. There are many Australian species with green crowns of foliage on short to tall stems.

Dioon: Mexican species with attractive symmetrical foliage growing on single or multiple trunks. Suitable for growing in full-sun positions.

Encephalartos: African species with prickly silver, grey, blue and green foliage, found in coastal and rocky elevated areas. Forms short trunks with radiating foliage.

Lepidozamia: Australian species with tall, slender trunks and rays of shiny green fronds.

Macrozamia: Australian species with short, stout trunks and stiff green foliage growing in eucalypt forests, woodland or arid gorges.

Zamia: includes the popular cardboard plant Z. furfuracea. Mainly small Central American species growing in coastal areas, rocky hillsides or as understorey plants. Some species are tolerant of alkaline soils.

How to plant and grow cycads

Climate: Cycads generally prefer warm, moist environments in full sun to partial shade, although some species are adapted to dry arid environments, with low winter rainfall. 

Soil: Cycads will tolerate most garden soils with the addition of compost and organic matter, as long as they are well drained. A soil pH between 6 and 7 is suitable for most cycad species, and this can be easily checked with a pH testing kit. Mulch to retain moisture and to improve the soil.

Potting mix: Use a premium standard potting mix when planting cycads into containers or pots. Allow the potting mix or soil to dry out between each watering, keeping it drier during the colder winter months.

Caring for cycads

In spring, use a controlled-release fertiliser for trees and shrubs. Additional applications of trace elements including iron, manganese and zinc will be beneficial in coastal or alkaline conditions.

How to prune cycads

Diseased, dead or untidy brown fronds can be easily removed by cutting them off with a pair of secateurs. Cycads with prickly foliage or spines, or dense rosettes of foliage are best pruned using long-handled loppers. This method can be used to accentuate the trunk of some species.

Pests, diseases and problems

Common pests of cycads include mites, mealy bug, scale and weevils, which may be easily controlled with an insecticide. If the pest attack is restricted to just a few leaves, it may be best to cut off the damaged fronds.

Cold conditions may cause brown spotting on tropical species, usually during winter. If this occurs, move the plant to a warmer and more protected spot. Symptoms frequently disappear during the warmer months. Fungal diseases can be controlled with a copper-based fungicide or by the removal of the affected foliage.

When grown in coastal areas, alkaline soils or in containers, cycads may suffer deficiencies in iron, manganese and zinc. Use either granulated or liquid sulphur to lower the soil pH and enrich the soil with acidic moss peat, compost and pine bark..

If you like this then try

Crepe myrtle: Summer flowering deciduous tree with attractive bark.

Magnolia: Deciduous tall shrub flowering in spring.

Japanese maple: Deciduous small tree that colours magnificently in autumn.

Start planting today

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