Coonties (Zamia pumila) are legally protected, commercially exploited plants in Florida. Nurseries, growers and retailers pay annually for state licenses and inspections. A state permit is required to harvest Coonties. Businesses must have an annual resale certificate to collect sales tax. All three are legally necessary for anyone trading in Coonties in Florida. I have been growing Coonties since 1996.
Relocating Coonties in a private garden is something homeowners may try. Knowledge is essential so the plants will survive. Warning: All cycad parts contain carcinogenic and neurotoxic glucoside — a cycasin toxic to humans.
Coonties are either male or female. Seed-bearing or pollen-bearing cones are borne on separate plants, a condition called dioecious.
Males mature sexually after about six years and females after eight to nine years. Planted too close together, Coonties will compete; eventually only one will survive. Plant Coonties about 5 feet apart. Growers keep young Coonties in 6-inch pots for three to four years and then up-pot them when older and bigger. Each leaf on a mature, fully grown Coontie can be 3 to 4 feet long. Leaves need room to radiate from the central underground stem in order to get sunlight for photosynthesis.
Female Coonties are pollinated by a small weevil when the female’s cone scales open during a few days. Slim male cones (strobili) have pollen the weevil larvae eat and, when the season is past, these male strobili dry, wither and fall off. Larvae shun the toxic female strobilis. Pollinated cones fatten as a single embryos develops within each hard-shelled seed inside the closed cone. In about nine months, the brown, velvet-covered cone opens to shed seeds surrounded by an orange, fleshy sarcotesta seedcoat. Wildlife eats the sarcotesta and may disperse seeds far from the mother. Seeds fall from the cones in late winter locally.
The sarcotesta prevents the seeds from drying out or germinating until the rains come in late spring in Florida. After the hard shell weathers, moisture penetrates the scarified shell and the seed germinates. First, a stubby root emerges and turns down to find the soil. Soggy, wet soil may cause the seedling to die. When it takes root, the delicate tip burrows into well-drained, sandy soil. Then two tiny leaves start to grow up to photosynthesize in sunlight. There are only two leaves the first year; each have two to three leaflets and are about 2 to 3 inches long. The seed case will fall off and a fattened underground stem will grow to store food. If exposed, this stem will sunburn or freeze and likely die.
In year two, there may be two to four new leaves up to 6 inches long. A two-year-old underground stem may be thumb-sized, with a 6 to 8 inch deep single taproot. Feeding and anchoring roots will grow from the taproot, not the underground stem.
In year three, a seedling will grow more, longer leaves with more pairs of opposite leaflets. Underground unusual coralline root nodules grow that resemble clusters of bubbles. There are blue-green algae, nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria within these nodules which provide nutrients to the Coontie. By year four, potted Coonties should have a bigger pot or their own spot in the landscape.
A hard freeze or fire will kill the leaves, but the underground stem and roots usually survive. New leaves generally sprout by late spring. Coonties older than 10 to 15 years should develop several growth points called crowns on top of the underground stem. Each crown will develop a set of leaves each year. A Coontie with three or five growth crowns will have three or five times more new leaves per year than a single-crowned coontie. Unskilled division or damage to the underground stem will likely prove fatal to a Coontie.
There is only one scientific name for Coontie: Zamia pumila. Plants with the same DNA grow on several Caribbean islands, including Cuba and Hispaniola. In Florida, Coonties are a “native,” pre-European contact species.
Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Visitors are welcome to her Dunnellon, Marion County, garden. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 352-249-6899.