Coontie Propagation and Production

The coontie, the only cycad native to North America, is an extremely cool plant, and even though it is a bit cool here in Tarrant County to grow it outside year round, it’s worthy of consideration for a low maintenance interior or indoor/outdoor plant.

Here’s the article I wrote about Coontie for the International Plant Propagators’ Society last week and a photo showing it’s dioecious nature from my presentation.

Figure 1. Male and Female Plants

Coontie Propagation
and Production

Laura M. Miller

Texas AgriLife Extension, Tarrant County, P.O. Box 1540, Fort Worth, TX
76101

Roger Newton

Suncoast Plant Nursery, 5512 W. Thonotosassa Rd., Plant City, FL 33563

Shawn Steed

University of Florida/IFAS Extension, Hillsborough County, 5339 County
Rd. 579, Seffner, FL 33584

Introduction

The coontie, Zamia
pumila
L., syn. Z. floridana, is
a cycad native to most counties in peninsular Florida and three counties in SE
Georgia. It is the only Zamia that is native
to the United States, and is a larval food source for the Florida Atala
butterfly, Eumaeus atala. Coontie has also been historically utilized
as a human food source. The name
‘coontie’ is thought to come from a Native American word meaning ‘flour root.’ Another common name for this plant is ‘arrow
root,’ and during the early 20th Century, it was widely harvested
and processed into starch in factories all over South Florida.

In modern times, coontie are rarely consumed but rather
produced for their value as a landscape plants.
The potential planting range for the coontie is USDA Hardiness Zones
8B-11, encompassing the Gulf Coast and much of the West Coast as well as the
most significant population centers of Texas and Arizona. Coontie are best adapted to partial shade,
but do well in full sun. In Florida, they
are frequently used in low maintenance landscape situations including urban
highway medians. Coontie do best in
soils with moderate to good drainage.
Soil pH is not usually a limiting factor, and coontie are considered to
be salt tolerant. The plant stores
carbohydrates in a caudex which allows it to survive relatively long periods
without water. The caudex also makes it
possible to sell bare root plants, which can be a great advantage when shipping
long distances.

There are at least two distinct plant forms, a thin-leaf
form that is primarily found growing in sandy soils on the West Coast of
Florida and in far south Florida, and a wide-leaf form that is found in oak and
pine hammocks in the northeastern part of Florida, west to Alachua County. Both forms have survived occasional salt
water inundation. The wide-leaf form is
generally considered to be more desirable for ornamental use, but the thin-leaf
form is sometimes thought to be more tolerant of drought and low temperatures
and might be best for certain landscape applications. The wide-leaf form is probably more shade
tolerant and therefore best suited for interiorscapes and indoor/outdoor
containers. All coontie are slow-growing
and long-lived.

Collecting Seed

Cycads are dioecious
plants. Male coontie plants produce
cones that emerge in August and shed pollen in November and December. Male cones can be up to 16 cm in length and
are usually 3-5 cm in diameter. Female cones
emerge at the same time and may be up to 30 in length and 14 cm in
diameter. Female cones are generally shorter
and always broader than male cones. Cone
color can range from black to brown to orange for both male and female cones. (Figure
1) There are two species of snout beetles that pollinate coontie, Pharaxonotha zamiae and Phopalotria slossoni. Coontie are probably also wind pollinated.

Seed may be collected
from landscape and container plants in December. Some female cones will break up and scatter
their seed, but other cones will remain tight even though the seeds are
mature.

Cleaning Seed

Separate seed from cone
litter anytime after the cone begins to break apart. Soak seed in water for six to eight weeks to
soften the seed coat. The seed coat is
thought to inhibit germination. Around
March 1, clean the seed by filling a 5 gallon bucket ¼ to ½ full of uncleaned
seed. (Figure 2) Add sufficient water to barely cover the seed. Use an electric drill equipped with a long
shank and a round wire brush to agitate the seed in the bucket. When the water is thick with seed coat
residue, empty the bucket into a strainer or onto a wire mesh screen and wash
with a stream of high pressure water.
Repeat the entire procedure until the seed is clean and free of seed
coat residue. This will typically
require three or more cycles. Some
growers add pectinase enzyme to help break down the seed coat. Pectinex
is a brand of pectinase enzyme produced by Novozymes Biologicals, Inc., 5400 Corporate Circle, Salem, VA 24153. Other brands are available.
Use
of the wire brush also scarifies the seed. Cleaned seed can be sown
immediately, stored, or sold.

Planting Seed

Suncoast
Plant Nursery uses a 10 inch deep bed of sharp builders sand in full sun for
seed germination. The seeds are spread
in a single on the sand surface and then covered with ½ inch of sand. Seed will germinate in 3-4 weeks with daily
irrigation. Other nurseries use recycled
growing media amended with sand to construct outdoor seed beds. If the seed coats are not removed, seeds will
germinate erratically over a period of two years. Fungal diseases are not usually a problem in
coontie seed beds.

Seedlings remain in the
seed bed for approximately one year after germination. During this year, continue to irrigate daily
or every other day. Apply a controlled
release fertilizer in June and October.
If temperatures are predicted to drop below freezing, covering the entire
seed bed with ground cloth or frost protection fabric will prevent cold damage.

Containerized Plant Production

Bare-root seedlings
should be removed from the seed bed in approximately one year after
sowing. These seedlings may be sold bare
root or planted in small containers. Suncoast Plant Nursery uses 2″ diameter
deep containers developed for rose production place in 18″ by 18″ trays. Coontie do best in a substrate with good
drainage. Suncoast Plant Nursery uses a
4 part pine bark/ peat mix amended with 2 parts sand and makes a broadcast
application of controlled release fertilizer.

Plants may be grown in
full sun or partial shade. Irrigate
three times per week. Florida Red Scale,
Chrysomphalus aonidum, is the only
significant pest of coontie. Scout for
Florida Red Scale beginning in April and treat as necessary. Suncoast Plant Nursery uses dimethoate and/or
horticultural oil to control Florida Red Scale, typically applying pesticide in
mid April and mid May.

After one year in the 2″
containers, seedlings can be transplanted to #1 containers. Suncoast Plant Nursery puts two seedlings per
pot in a pine bark substrate amended with sand. Other nurseries market the
caudex with the leaves removed as a bare root plant at this time.

Any controlled
release fertilizer may be used in production. Place containers in either full
sun or partial shade and irrigate three times per week. Continue to monitor for and control Florida
Red Scale.

After one year in #1
containers, plants can be sold or transplanted into #3 containers. The plants will remain in #3 containers for
two years. Substrate, irrigation,
fertilization and pest management recommendations are the same as for the #1
container phase. At the end of this
production period, a marketable #3 plant will be about 12-14 inches tall with
10-20 mature leaves.

If plants are not sold
as #3s, there is some demand for 18-20 inch tall #7 container specimen
plants. A finished #7 can be obtained in
two more years using the same production techniques.

Conclusion

The key to coontie seed
germination is removal of the seed coat residue. Coontie remains a slow crop to produce, but
the result is a versatile, low maintenance landscape or interiorscape plant.

References

Black, Robert J. 1985. Salt Tolerant Plants for Florida. University of Florida/IFAS Fact Sheet
ENH-26. edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

Broome, Tom. 1998. The Coontie of Florida. Virtual Cycad
Encyclopedia. www.plantapalm.com.

Broome, Tom. 2006. Personal Communication.

Chaippini, Dave. 2007.
Propagation Protocol for the Native Cycad Coontie (Zamia pumila L.) Native
Plants Journal, Volume 8, Number 2, pp. 123-124.

Gilman, Edward F. 1999. Zamia floridana. University of Florida/IFAS Fact Sheet FPS-617,
edis.ifas.ufl.edu

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