Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I said COONTIE, Not Cootie!

One of the most neglected, unglamorous and trouble-free plants in my yard is the coontie (Zamia floridana).  This native Florida shrub is a member of an ancient family of plants called "Cycads" that have flourished on our planet since the time of dinosaurs. They are true "living fossils" worthy of a place of honor in modern suburban landscapes.

In more recent times (the last 600 years or more), bread made from flour from the coontie's stem sustained the native Calusa and Timucua peoples of Florida. 

But it's not their impressive lineage that has made me fall in love with them. It's their indestructibility. 

Put them in full or part shade, in just about any well-drained soil, and they'll thrive. They can even survive in full sun, though I don't think they look entirely happy there.

They are bonafide water misers, among the most drought-tolerant plants I know. I never feel the need to water mine, even in our rain-starved spring months. They do occasionally get scale and sooty mold, but neither are a huge problem and can be managed with a dousing of insecticidal soap or Neem oil. 

Coonties are good choices for coastal landscapes because they tolerate salt pretty well. And they scoff at cold weather. What's not to love?

I have about a dozen coonties in my landscape. I now know that there is some point during the late winter or spring when they will look like they're about to croak. Their fronds turn brown and droopy. Perhaps they suffer from some botanical Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

But just when I start to get really worried about them, they bounce back. So now I don't worry anymore.

Coonties are very slow-growing. It's illegal to harvest them from the wild, so the coonties you see in landscapes are all nursery stock. It at least 3-4 years for a coontie to reach a marketable 1-gallon size. Nursery growers invest a lot of time in them; that's why they are fairly expensive plants. 

But, Holy Cycad, are they resilient and durable! I love to see them in mass plantings, where they make a beautiful, fern-like groundcover up to 3 feet high. 

Female coontie cone
I love plants that are dioecious, meaning they have both male and female specimens. The female coontie produces a large, chubby seed pod that resembles a pine cone. The male's cone is much smaller and more slender. That's the only way to tell them apart.

Male coontie cone

The seedpods split open and eventually drop large seeds covered with a rubbery, orange coating called a "sarotesta" (No, I'm not that smart. I looked it up in the University of FLorida's EDIS plant info database!) In nature, this outer layer is removed by passing through the digestive systems of animals, being eaten by bugs, or by naturally disintegrating over time.

One year I tried to raise my own coontie pups. I eagerly scooped up the seeds, put them in a bucket of water to soften the tough orange coating and then used a pocketknife to scrape off some of the coating and nick, or "scarify" the hard pod beneath. 

I planted the seeds in nursery pots in loose-packed, well-drained soil, and waited. And waited. And waited.

Months later, a few of the seeds sprouted. Well, three out of 25 to be exact. Not exactly a result to crow about.

Since then, I decided to let Mother Nature do the germinating for me. Each year, I wait till the babies pop up, then I transplant them into pots and give them away. Sharing the "cooties." To me, that's what Florida gardening is all about.

Do you have this tough-as-nails Florida native in your landscape?