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What’s Blooming in Paradise: The coontie dates back to the Jurassic Period

By Staff | Aug 17, 2016

The coontie is a host plant for the atala butterfly. PHOTO BY Anita Force Marshall

Plant Subject: Coontie (Zamia pumila)

First impression: Milk chocolate brown colored pine cones popping with glow in the dark orange fruit. The fruits are concealed ripening amongst the cone casings in the center of the plant. Fern like stiff leaves line the branches in dark rich green. It reminds me of plants you would see during the dinosaur’s days, a cross between a trunk-less palm and a stiff fern. It may transport you to images of a jungle-like island from years gone by blooming here in your tropical garden.

Upon further investigation: I have never met a cycad I haven’t loved! Cycads are part of the oldest known plant family; they hail 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 fern-like 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 tell tale pine cones. Our star is dioecious, having male or female reproductive “cones” present on separate plants. The plump, wide cone identifies the female and slender, 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 cones, an almost glowing show stopper! 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 area, and we are very excited. Our shrub is a must have plant for a low maintenance ground cover 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. Its native status puts it in the easy nature 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.

Pros:

Does well in sandy soil

Don’t you just love saying koon-tee

Drought tolerant

Gives garden a jungle feel

Native

Fruits are strikingly gorgeous

Wildlife love it

Run for cover if you hear dinosaurs

Super groundcover

Host plant for atala butterfly

Cons:

Slow grower

Cold sensitive

Conclusion: Are you missing your paleontological jungle? Follow the dinosaur’s foot prints to your tropical garden in paradise. Don’t wanna miss this bloomer!

Remember we have a yearly fertilizer restriction during July 1 through Oct 2. This is a very important mandatory restriction to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into our precious waterways. Any fertilizing during our rainy season, only ends up in our water resources as unwanted algae blooms.