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What’s Blooming in Paradise: Coontie (Zamia pumila)

By Staff | Oct 29, 2014

Coontie (Zamia pumila). BILL ZAK

First impression: Milk-chocolate, brown-colored pinecones popping with glow in the dark orange fruit. The fruits are concealed ripening amongst the cone casings in the center of the plant. Fernlike stiff leaves line the branches in dark rich green.

This mature plant is a wonderful groundcover for an area of 4 feet across and 3 feet tall. It reminds me of plants you would see during the dinosaur’s days, a cross between a trunkless palm and a stiff fern. It may transport you to images of a jungle-like island from years gone by blooming here at the Botanical Gardens of the Sanibel Moorings.

Upon further investigation: I have never met a Cycad I haven’t loved! Cycads are part of the oldest known plant family, hailing from the Jurassic Period. Centuries ago they were everywhere; today they are a very minor component in our gardens. You would think that millions of years might have changed them, but you can rely on them being pretty much looking and acting just like they did when the dinosaurs were alive and kicking.

Coonties can grow up to 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide, with a clumping, sprawling type manner. Slow growing with no visible trunk, the stems emerge from the base. The trunk is a tuber-like structure that is located underground. The stems are fernlike but very stiff and a lovely dark green, with leaves lining each side of the stems from top to bottom. Even though it has a palm look, it hails from the pine family.

Look closely in the center, you will see the telltale pinecones. Our star is dioecious, having male or female reproductive “cones” present on separate plants. The plump and wide cone identifies the female. Slender and tall identifies the male plants. Female are the fruit-bearers after the male produces his pollen. After pollination, striking electric, orange colored fruits contrast against the dark-brown conesan almost glowing showstopper!

Coontie (Zamia pumila). BILL ZAK

This unusual fruit is poisonous to us, but yummy to our critters. Its low growing, sprawling habit is a great protective shelter for birds, turtles, rabbits and wildlife. It is the host plant for the struggling Atala butterfly. This beautiful butterfly has begun to take up residence in our gardens, and we are very excited.

Our shrub is a must-have plant for a low maintenance groundcover and it is one of my favorite. It has a dreamy take-you-back-to-days-gone-by tropical look and does well in full sun or full shade. I have embraced its uniqueness, and will add it for a great beginning frame to my layered and tiered planting areas.

It will grow on a wide variety of soils and sand, but cannot tolerate wet feet. I began my love of Coontie with my first plant I purchased from the SCCF Native Plant Nursery. Its native status puts it in the easy natured and lack of pests/disease category.

Do you have a hard to grow anything shady or sunny spot? Try planting our star and see what happens!


Does well in sandy soil

Likes full sun to shade

Easy to maintain

Salt tolerance

Don’t you just love saying koon-tee

Drought tolerant

Gives garden a jungle feel


Easy care

Fruits are strikingly gorgeous

Wildlife love it

Run for cover if you hear dinosaurs

Super groundcover

Host plant for Atala butterfly.


Slow grower

Cold sensitive

Re-think nibbling caterpillars are baby Atala butterflies.

Conclusion: Are you missing your paleontological jungle? Swing by our garden and admire our many survivors from the Jurassic Period. Follow the dinosaur’s footprints to our tropical garden in paradise.

Don’t wanna miss this bloomer!