When looking for a low maintenance plant, choosing a native is always a good idea. One of my favorite native plants is a prehistoric plant called a Coontie fern or Zamia pumila.
Coontie ferns are related to the Sago Palm, which is also a member of the cycad family, which is a group of plants that were around in the dinosaur age. These tough plants are deer resistant, salt and drought tolerant and can handle the cold.
Their leaves resemble those of a fern, and plants are slow slowing, growing to about two to three feet tall and wide.
“They are a beautiful dark green luscious plant,’’ said Gene Holly, a long-time fan of the Coontie fern, who has been growing and enjoying these wonderful plants for more than 40 years. Holly first became interested in Coonties when he saw them growing at an old cemetery in the Ocala National Forest. “I’ve seen some so big you could not even reach around them. They had been growing there for years and years,” he said. “They are very hardy.’’
Coonties look great planted in masses, as a specimen or do great in containers. They grow in Florida, the Caribbean and North South America. They have a large storage root that looks like a sweet potato and a far reaching tap root. Often found in open pine woods and coastal woodlands, Coonties will grow in full sun to dense shade.
They are also not particular about soil, with the only requirement being that it must be well drained. Because of their great tolerance to so many different conditions, Coonties are an excellent addition to any landscape.
In researching the Coontie, sources say they are very difficult to grow from seed, with high mortality rates. But Holly, who has been growing them for seed for 35 years, has a 90 percent survival rate.
The first step is to collect the seeds from female plants, which will bear larger cones than the male plants. In the winter and early spring, plants produce brown cones with bright orange seeds about an inch long. “Wait until the seed pod completely breaks open. You have to wait for the seed to mature.’’ He added, “When the seed pods break open it’s a beautiful sight.’’
Next Holly brings the seed into his garage and spreads the seeds on a thin layer of newspaper to dry out and leaves them alone for six to seven weeks. “Let them wrinkle up a little bit like a raisin or prune,” Holly advised.
Then, take the seeds one at a time and from top to bottom scrape the outside layer off the entire seed with a knife. “Get as much off that you can and then dry them again for two to three days,” Holly said.
Others who propagate Coonties or other cycads suggest wearing gloves when handling these seeds because skin irritation could result. But Holly never wears gloves and has never had any reactions handling them.
A couple of days before you are ready to plant them soak them overnight or for a couple of nights in plain tap water. “I really believe that is what helps get them started,’’ he said. Plant them the day you take them out of the water, and Holly recommends planting them in April or May after the soil warms up.