Coontie

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Plant Description: Coontie is an evergreen, palm-like plant known as a cycad. Cycads are a general group of plants that produce cones instead of flowers, and the Coontie happens to be Florida’s only native cycad. Unlike Sago cycads, Coontie may resemble a fern having both a soft appearance and a soft touch. Over time, the plant produces suckers to form a mounding shrub. The rusty brown cones provide winter interest, while the bright red-orange seeds produced on female cones further add to this plant’s attractiveness.  At its mature size it is 1-5 feet tall with a 3-5 foot spread.

Scientific Name: Zamia pumila

Common Names: cardboard palm, sago tree, and sago palm

Family: Zamiaceae

Origin: southeastern United States (in Florida and Georgia), the Bahamas, Cuba, and the Cayman Islands.

Distribution/History: When the Seminoles moved into Florida in the mid-18th century, they picked up on this very important food source. In fact, "Coontie" is one of the names the Seminoles had for this plant and it roughly means "flour root". The Indians would cut up pieces of the stems and pound them out into a powder as much as possible. Around 1845, several factories sprung up all over south Florida to produce starch from the Coontie. One of the mills along the Miami River is said to have processed 10-15 tons of product per day at peak production. In south Florida, a natural population would grow very slow. It can take 30 years to grow a plant that might weigh five pounds. These factories produced starch until 1925. Between the starch factories and the building in south Florida, only small remnants of these vast populations remain.

Importance: Coontie provides food in exchange for pollination services from many species of insects to include beetles, butterflies and moths. Seeds are a source of food for mockingbirds, blue jays and other birds and many small animals. The coontie's underground root-like stem is more properly called a caudex.  Besides being used as a food source in the past, coontie is a primary food source for the Atala butterfly when it is in its larval stage. This butterfly was thought to be extinct in 1965 but has been making a comeback since wild coontie has increased in number.