Cycads have been around since the Jurassic Period 200 million years ago, and still thrive today in many different habitats around the world.
They are living fossils – looking like a cross between a fern and a palm. In the past, cycads would indeed have made tasty meals for plant-eating dinosaurs.
Cycads are incredibly long-lived, with some individuals in the wild today up to 1,000 years old. One of the oldest cycads ‘in captivity’ is in Kew Gardens in London, and it at least 228 years old! Part of the secret of their longevity is that they grow very slowly – producing just a few leaves each year.
If you have a female cycad plant in your garden (the most popular are Macrozamia and Cycas) it may well sport a big fat cone in April, chock full of brilliant orange or red shiny seeds. As the cone matures the seeds spill out and foraging marsupials, large birds and even fruit bats enjoy the treat. After eating the tasty covering, the animal discards the hard seeds, distributing them over a wide area.
Most parts of a cycad plant including the raw seeds are highly poisonous to humans, dogs, cattle and sheep. Aboriginal people developed a method of soaking or ageing the seeds which rendered the toxins harmless and the seeds edible.
For many years, thought to be wind pollinated, we now know that many cycads rely on weevils to pollinate them. The relationship is quite specific – a single weevil species attaches to a certain species of cycad and will always pollinate that species.
Australia’s 30 or so species of cycads grow along the tropical and subtropical east coast and in the south-west. The Daintree region of far north Queensland and the New South Wales central coast are particularly rich in cycads. One species occurs in arid Central Australia. While there are no wild cycads in the southern states, Victoria’s rich ancient cycad fossil beds tell a different story about the ancient past.
DID YOU KNOW?Although they look like ferns, cycads are a closer relative to conifers. Both bear their seeds in cones and have separate male and female plants.
TIPLiving cycads are found in the tropical, subtropical and warm temperate regions of both the north and south hemispheres.