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What are Cycads

Cycads are seed plants with a long fossil history that were formerly more abundant and more diverse than they are today. They typically have a stout and woody (ligneous) trunk with a crown of large, hard and stiff, evergreen leaves.

They usually have pinnate leaves. The individual plants are either all male or all female. Cycads vary in size from having trunks only a few centimeters to several meters tall. They typically grow very slowly and live very long, with some specimens known to be as much as 1,000 years old. Because of their superficial resemblance, they are sometimes mistaken for palms or ferns, but they are not closely related to either group.

Cycads are gymnosperms (naked seeded), meaning their unfertilized seeds are open to the air to be directly fertilized by pollination, as contrasted with angiosperms, which have enclosed seeds with more complex fertilization arrangements. Cycads have very specialized pollinators, usually a specific species of beetle.

How to Care for Cycads

The cycads are an attractive group of plants with stout trunks and long, glossy fronds resembling those of palm trees. The dominant form of vegetation millions of years ago, their habitat has been reduced to a few tropical and temperate regions around the world. The most commonly grown cycad in the United States, and one that can be grown outside in temperate regions, is the sago palm (Cycas Revoluta). The sago palm is best suited to U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9 to 10 but has been recorded growing in regions as cold as zone 8. Aside from cold-weather tolerance, whether you are growing an indoor variety of cycad or an outdoor sago palm, the general care requirements are the same.

  1. Place the cycad in a sunny location, but avoid hot afternoon sunlight, especially from behind glass. A window that receives direct morning sunlight is ideal if growing inside. If growing outside, place the cycad where it will receive direct morning sun only or partially shaded afternoon sunlight.
  2. Transplant cycads when roots become visible around drainage holes. Transplant the cycad to a larger pot or into an outside garden. Cycads tolerate many different kinds of soil, but do best in well-drained compost. Repot the cycad into a pot that is around 2 inches wider and deeper than its previous pot. Pat down the soil firmly and water well until it is soaked. If planting outside, dig a hole around 2 or 3 inches wider and deeper than the root ball. Fill the bottom 2 to 3 inches with well-drained compost or potting soil, pat down firmly and water until soaked. Place the root ball into the hole and fill the area around the root ball with soil. Pat down firmly and water until the surrounding soil is soaked.
  3. Water cycads whenever the surface of the soil feels dry to the touch during the spring and summer. Water the cycad until soaked but allow the water to drain completely. Water once a month or so during the winter months and only when the soil is dry to the touch.
  4. Fertilize cycads once in early spring and again in early-to-mid summer. Fertilize cycads using 19-6-12 granular slow-release fertilizer. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of the granular fertilizer for every 2-foot-square area and mix it into the top 2 inches of soil. Water well after applying fertilizer.
  5. Prune off lower fronds of the cycad as they yellow and die. Cut the fronds back to around 1 to 2 inches from the trunk. Discard the fronds and take away any dead fronds from the area around the base of the cycad. Decaying fronds can spread disease to the plant if not removed
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