Zamia furfuracea

cardboard cycad


Zamia furfuracea

L.f. ex Alton 1789

pronounced: ZAM-ee-uh fur-fur-AH-see-uh

(Zamiaceae — the coontie family)

common name: cardboard cycad

The very word Zamia, as used in both family and genus names, is a mistake! It originated from the misreading of the term azaniæ nuces in the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, published around 77-79 AD, used to describe pine cones that open on the tree. Pliny had borrowed the word from the Greek αζανειν (azanein), to dry up. Furfuracea is from the Latin furfuraceus, like bran, or like scurf or scales on the skin. Coontie appears to be one of the names the Seminole Indians in Florida had for these plants.

Cycads are ‘living fossil’ plants, having survived since the time of the dinosaurs. The word cycad is another mistake! The word κοικας (koikas) from κοιξ (koix), the doum-palm, was misread from a manuscript as κυκας (kykas), and anglicized to cycas.

The Cardboard Cycad has leaves 90 – 120 cm long that emerge from a central point forming a rosette. When grown in bright sunlight, the rosette becomes a 90 cm high clump of tightly overlapping leaves that will slowly grow to about 180 cm in diameter. The thick leathery leaves are pinnate, with a petiole 15 – 30 cm long, and have 6 – 12 pairs of 12 cm by 2.5 cm oval leaflets. These leaflets do not have a midrib. They are slightly fuzzy, and feel a little like cardboard when rubbed. Occasionally the leaflets are toothed towards the tips.

The foliage emerges from a thick, fleshy, sometimes subterranean trunk that serves as a water reservoir in times of drought. It is usually marked by scars from old leaf bases. The plant grows very slowly when young, but the growth rate accelerates after the trunk matures. Male and female reproductive structures (cones) form on separate plants. Even very young plants produce these cones. When ripe, the female cone breaks to reveal an array of tightly packed bright red seeds, about 2.5 cm long.

This cycad, one of the most popular for garden use, is native to the warm sandy coastal plains of Mexico, and is a common landscape item in tropical and sub-tropical areas all over the world. It also does well as a house plant. It likes a neutral, well-drained soil, mulched with organic materials such as bark or leaf mould. There are many of these cycads in Magnetic Island gardens.

dangerous 2All parts of the plant are poisonous to animals and humans. The toxicity causes liver and kidney failure, as well as eventual paralysis. Dehydration sets in very quickly. No cure for the poisoning is currently known.

The plant can be reproduced only by seed. The germination is very slow and difficult to achieve in cultivation. As a result, many plants sold for horticultural use, particularly in North America, are illegally collected in the wild: the species is now classified as ‘vulnerable’.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2010
Page last updated 28th April 2019