When we need something dramatic in a landscape a cycad is often the answer. In a feature pot; used in formal repetition; massed in beds along driveways or buildings, their fine-leafed, fern-like form combines a bold toughness with feathery lightness – and we love their prehistoric vibe. The cycad family of plants developed at least 280 million years ago, well before dinosaurs walked beneath their spreading fronds. Their garden plant descendants are more recent arrivals, only 12 million years old, give or take.
Cycad, cycas revoluta, is most common, and has been used as a garden plant in China and Japan for hundreds of years. Also called Japanese sago palm, referring to its origins in the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan, this cycad grows a bit like a tree fern, slowly attaining a height of around three metres with a crown of feathery fronds made up of spiky leaflets. It sometimes develops as a multi-trunked form. Cycads like a sunny position with good drainage, though they cope in shade, and in pots.
Cardboard palm, Zamia furfuracea, native to eastern Mexico, has rounded pale green leaves with dark undersides coming from stiff arching stems. It’s slow-growing, in full or part sun, and tolerates dry spells. It works well in feature pots – we like dichondra silver falls covering the soil on the surface of the pot and spilling over the side – and will eventually get to a metre tall and two across, but that takes so long that this plant can be a family heirloom.
The ferny leaflets of Lepidozamia are shiny and reflect light, while also making lovely shadow patterns beneath; the stubbier fronds of the cardboard palm look handsome in a pot for years and years; the fronds of burrawangs have an arching elegance.
Macrozamia communis and Lepidozamia peroffskyana are two Australian members of the cycad family, both from the east cost. Macrozamia is native to the lands of the Dharug people who called it burrawang. The name spread is is now commonly used to refer to the 40 or so Australian cycads. Burrawangs are slow-growing and can live for up to 120 years. The starchy seeds are edible – but only after extensive treatment. Eaten fresh, they’re poisonous. Burrawangs grow in light forest in the wild, but can also cope with sun. The foliage is spiky so they’re best planted away from pathways. Macrozamia stays at about hip height, while Lepidozamia grows a single stem several metres tall. Both look great in pots and in groups in the garden.
When stressed cycads can be attacked by scale and other pests. Pale spots on the leaves and a general lack of vigour will alert you to the problem. Spray with pest oil or other organic treatments for sucking pests. If plants are kept healthy, with well-drained soil and regular watering in the first few years while they get established, and dose of balanced fertiliser in spring, they will shrug off pests and thrive.