Zamia is one of the larger genera of Cycads, yet one of the least understood. This is partly due to their tropical and inaccessible origins as well as their tropical cultivational needs. But as a group this is one of the most ornamental of the cycads and certainly worthy of cultivation should one live in the right climate for them.
There are about 50 species of Zamia (53 to 61 depending on your source, at the time of writing this article) but with new species being discovered and described nearly every year, as well as some species being lumped together and others divided up as is always happening in the ongoing war of systematics.All Zamias are New World plants with the majority being from Central America.There are a few North American natives, and dozens of South American species.Most Zamias are native to the tropical jungles and forests in between where few of us get to see them.Only a few species are readily recognizable to the average plant collector, but of those, at least one is among the most commonly grown of all the cycads (Zamia furfuracea aka Cardboard Palm) and another very familiar to those from Florida (Zamia integrifolia, or Coontie).This genus also includes the only epiphytic cycad that I am aware of: Zamia pseudoparasitica.Though Zamias as a group are among the smallest cycads, some species are quite large, having trunks up to 20 feet tall.Most Zamias have symmetrically lancelote, smooth to shiny leaves without teeth (there are several exceptions to this) or midribs.Petioles tend to be fairly long, some markedly spiny and most arching.Cones are corncob-like with sporophyls stacked in parallel rows.
'typical' Zamia leaves- shiny and either glossy smooth or deeply ridged: (from left to right- Zamia splendens, Zamia neurophyllidia and Zamia polymorpha)
less typicl Zamia leaves: narrow (Zamia angustifolia), fuzzy/rough (Zamia furfuracea) and toothed and papery (Zamia vasquezii)
mature male cones (Zamia neurophyllidia) and female cones (Zamia vasquezii)
Open male cone (Zamia integrifolia); Ripe Zamia integrifolia cone (photo MotherNature4)
As a group, Zamias are some of the least drought and cold tolerant of the cycads, though there are exceptions, of course.
Zamia furfuracea leaves fried by 25F frost in my garden
Most Zamias are at least somewhat toxic, though the major toxic elements are the fruits and seeds.This is important information for those who want to grow Zamias, but have dogs that tend to eat fruits in the yard.Since I live in a relatively arid climate, this is not a big concern as rarely do Zamias fruit here (they cone easilyl enough, but don't seem to get a whole lot farther than that).But it is a very big concern in Florida or other humid, warm locales.
These fruits are attractive and even mildly tasty to dogs (Zamia furfuracea in Florida)
The following are a few selected species which are fairly common in cultivation:
Zamia angustifolia, a Bahama and Cuban native, is another relatively cold-tolerant species that I am able to grow fairly easily in Southern California.It has very thin leaflets and is amazingly sun tolerant for a Zamia (most of the thin-leaved Zamias seem pretty sun tolerant).Cold hardiness is at least down to 26F (-3.5C) and it seems to have no problems with high heat other than developing some degree of blanching on its leaflets.It is a smallish species with an underground caudex.
Mature Zamia angustifolia (left) and my own plant (right)
Zamia encephalartoidesis is one of my favorite of the Zamias and a really nice collector's item, though rare (I have never gotten ahold of one.) It is a native of Colombia which makes collecting seeds a bit of a potential health hazard. It is a large branching plant with good sun tolerance and even a bit of cold tolerance down to about 26F (-3.5C).As it's name suggests, this looks more like an Encephalartos than a Zamia with its broad, ovoid leaflets and deeply recurved, stiff leaves.But is so named because the female cone looks just like that of a Encephalartos species. (I have no photos of this species, but you can see images at this web page.)
Zamia furfuracea (Cardboard Palm) is probably one of the most commonly cultivated of all the cycads, with only Cycas revoluta (aka Sago Palm) (and maybe Dioon edule in some parts of the world) being more commonly grown.It is a fairly easy plant to grow with a lot of tolerance for growing in low light as well as full sun.Additionally it is a drought-tolerant plant (some grow it successfully like one would a desert succulent) that also grows very well in very high rainfall situations that would rot most desert succulents.What it certainly does not share with the other common cycad species is cold tolerance with severe leaf damage occurring at temps not far below freezing.However the caudex, which is mostly subterranean (usually) can withstand temperatures down into the low 20sF briefly, so defoliated plants in zones 9b and 10a will usually regrow.Though not terribly cold tolerant, it is relative to the cold tolerance of most other Zamia species, many which cannot survive in USDA zones 10a or below.Zamia furfuracea is also popular because is moderately salt tolerant so can be grown easily along the coast and even in sandy areas along the beaches. This species is one of the few Zamias with rough textured leaves.The more common leaf form in cultivation is the one with wider, round-tipped leaves.However the wild type is a plant with lancelote leaves.Presumably the rarer ‘round-leaf' form was felt to more ornamental so that is one that has become more common in the nursery trade.Zamia furfuracea is a significant source of animal and child poisonings in warmer, humid climates where the highly toxic fruits commonly develop.In arid climates, such as the one I live in (southern California) fruit formation is extremely rare.Despite its being a commonplace Zamia, it is threatened in the wild.
Zamia furfuracea in Florida and Thailand (first two photos) Zamia furfuracea in my garden, southern California, with new leaves developing
Fuzzy new leaves (left) and narrow-leaf form (right)
Zamia furfuraceas can be found in large numbers at many nurseries throughout the country. They are getting really cheap.
Zamia inermis is included here since I have a couple in the garden and they are doing fairly well, though very slow (for me).This is another cold and sun tolerant narrow leaflet species and performs fairly well in both sun and shade for me.It is Mexican native and grows in climates not dissimilar to Zamia furfuracea.Caudex is always underground.
Zamia inermis in tropics (left), greenhouse (middle photo) and my own plant (right)
Zamia integrifolia (Coontie) is a U.S. native, though it is native to multiple Caribbean countries as well.This plant is often grown or sold under the synonym Zamia floridana.This is one of the more cold-tolerant of all the Zamias, surviving temperatures down to 15F (-9C) regularly.Despite this cold tolerance it still is a heat-loving species growing very slowly in my cool, arid climate of Southern California.In its native Florida this is a very easy and relatively fast growing plant- fast enough to be useful as a commercial landscaping plant (takes decades to be a decent landscape plant in my climate).Most plants have dozens of thin arching leaves with narrow leaflets. These leaflets are smooth, shiny and have a rounded end.In nature this plant as a subterranean caudex, but in pot cultivation a few inches of the caudex can be raised for ornamental value.This plant is also a common source of pet toxicities in Florida.
Zamia integrifolia in Florida, and bonsai (photo irmaly)
Zamia neurophyllidia is a relatively common tropical species and most botanical gardens with a conservatory will have a specimen.I have grown this one in southern California outdoors for years, but it has never done well for me, and eventually expires.It really needs the warmth and humidity, similar to where it is from (Panama and Costa Rica).This is a moderate sized cycad with a caudex up to two feet tall and has distinctively elliptical shiny, deeply grooved leaflets.A similar species, Zamia skinneri, is a ‘giant-leaved' version of this plant and is a popular collector species among cycad enthusiasts.
Closely related species, Zamia skinneri
Zamia pseudoparasitica is the only truly epiphytic cycad, growing only in tree branches in nature (Panama), never on the ground.It is a beautiful species with long, arcing leaves with leathery, falcate leaflets.Sadly it is fairly tropical in its needs and would not survive my climate in southern California unless grown in a greenhouse.Fortunately it is becoming more widely available for those that do have a suitably environment for it.
Zamia pseudoparasitica in Hawaii (first two photos) and one in protected outdoor situation southern California
Zamia vasqueziiis another fairly common cycad, sometimes showing up at garden outlet nurseries and many nurseries which carry a variety of warm-climate plants.For years this plant was sold and grown as Zamia fischeri, but the true Zamia fischeri is a much smaller and rarer plant.Zamia vasquezii has numerous leaves with almost papery thin deltoid, toothed leaflets while Zamia fischeri only sports a few leaves at a time with narrowly lancelote, toothless, leathery leaflets.This is not a particularly good full sun plant, but makes a great potted or garden shade plant with some cold tolerance (easy plant in most zone 9bs), and can even be grown as an indoor plant if given sufficient light.
Zamia vasquezii in landscape, and in cactus show
The REAL Zamia fischeri
The following are some snapshots of some of the other Zamias, most which are less commonly encountered in cultivation.