By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
I love a plant with a descriptive and evocative name. Cardboard palm plant (Zamia furfuracea) is one of those ancient plants with a lot of character that can grow inside or outside depending upon your gardening zone. What is a Zamia cardboard palm? In fact, it isn’t a palm at all but a cycad — like the sago palm plant. Knowing how to grow Zamia palms starts with knowing your USDA planting zone. This little guy is not winter hardy in the majority of North American regions, but it makes an excellent container or houseplant anywhere. Grow it outdoors in USDA zones 9 to 11 year round.
We already ascertained that the plant is not a palm. Cycads, which have been around since the dinosaurs, form cones at the center of the plant. The cardboard palm plant is native to Mexico and has tropical tendencies in its preferred temperature and light levels.
Zamia cardboard palm does have pinnate leaves like a palm tree, but they are rounded with a thick tuberous stem. The evergreen leaflets grow in opposing pairs of up to 12 per stem. It is a low growing plant that may spread 3 to 4 feet (1 m.) and an underground trunk. The trunk stores moisture in times of drought, which makes Zamia ideal for xeriscape gardens. Cardboard palm care requires enough moisture to keep the trunk fat and healthy. Never let it dry to the point that the trunk and stem are wrinkled or dry.
Propagation of cardboard palm plants is inconsistent through seed. The plants come in male and female sexes. It may be difficult to tell which you have at first, but the male produces a large cone that protrudes from the core of the plant, while the female cone is smaller and flatter.
Females may produce numerous bright red seeds when they are pollinated. They should be germinated in moist sand in flats indoors. Temperature range for germination is at least 65 F. (18 C.), but growing cardboard palms from seed is finicky business. Seeds should be sown immediately, as they are not viable for long.
Once the seedling has emerged, it will look nothing like your adult plant. Young cardboard palm care includes moderate light until the second set of true leaves appears. Keep the sand moderately moist and transplant when the root base is robust.
Maintenance is minimal when growing cardboard palms. Zamia thrives in moderate to bright light. It has a slow growth habit and does well in good potting soil as long as the container has excellent drainage. The plant is prone to some pests, such as spider mites, but its biggest problem is rot.
Water deeply weekly in summer but reduce moisture in winter and fall by half. The thick underground trunk needs to be filled with stored water but over anxious growers may tend to overwater it and cause stem or crown rot. Once the crown is overtaken by fungal spores, it is nearly impossible to save.
Prune off dead leaves as they occur and fertilize with a slow release palm food or a diluted household plant food once monthly during the growing season.
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Cycad plants are handsome, palm-like plants (often referred to as palms) with legendary ancient ancestry in the plant kingdom. Today they're among the most eye-catching landscape plants in South Florida.
Looking like a cross between a small palm and a big fern, cycads play an important role as easy-care plants that provide elegant form and tropical texture.
The most commonly used varieties are coontie palm (zamia pumila) and cardboard palm (zamia furfuracea) - pictured below - partly because they're two of the smaller cycad varieties.
The gorgeous, deep-green king sago palms (Cycas revoluta) - pictured below - were extremely popular in South Florida, until about a decade ago when a viral form of Asian scale arrived in the United States and all but wiped them out.
This cycad scale only affects the king and queen sago, not other cycads.
Sagos are now available for sale again, and reputable nurseries will advise you when you buy a sago to use an oil spray such as neem oil on the leaves and surrounding ground if you see little white dots of scale start to form.
Because sago palms disappeared from landscapes, the scale problem has become more controllable.
Most of these plants grow very slowly to a height of 3 to 6 feet, depending on variety, making them a good fit in any size yard.
A Living Legend
Amazing cycads are often called "living fossils" since they have lived unchanged on earth - so the story goes - for over 200 million years, at a time when dinosaurs trampled or grazed on them.
According to a new study, they've probably been around unchanged for a mere 5 or 10 million years. changes apparently took place when the continents broke apart.
The blue-green dioon spinulosum (the larger of the two) and dioon edule are extremely beautiful - and sadly underused in home landscapes.
Some cycads stay low to the ground all their lives. The dioon spinulosum and the king and queen sagos will eventually form a short, thick trunk.
A cycad will form an unusual reproductive seed cone, usually in spring. Note: The seeds contain toxins that are poisonous to animals and people if ingested.
They're salt-tolerant, drought-tolerant once established, and grow in full sun to part shade (dioon prefers some shade).
Cycad plants do fine in Zones 9 or 10. The queen sago can get leaf tip burn from cold but recovers quickly.
The tips of the leaves are prickly on some varieties, so these work best when planted away from foot traffic or recreational areas.
Plant in a well-drained area, since cycad plants don't like "wet feet." Water regularly but let them dry out between waterings.
Add composted cow manure to the hole when you plant to enrich the soil.
These plants rarely need any kind of trimming - other than to remove a dead leaf stem occasionally.
Fertilize in spring, summer and fall with a slow-release, granular palm fertilizer.
For the larger cycads, plant at least 3 feet or more apart to allow for the expansive growth (eventually) of the long "fronds."
For larger cycads, come away from the house about 3 feet or more. Smaller ones can go as close as 2 feet.
These make excellent container plants because they grow so slowly.
Coontie (sometimes called coontie palm) makes an excellent drought-tolerant shrub, so we've included it in the section on Small Shrubs.
GOOD SNOWBIRD PLANT? YES
COMPANION PLANT SUGGESTIONS: Plant with other plants that like to dry out between waterings: orange bird of paradise, clusia, cocoplum, crown of thorns, yucca, and triangle palm.
Other palms you might like: Silver Saw Palmetto, Madagascar Palm
When you're making a fire pit in your backyard or at your campsite, it can be helpful to recycle paper materials by burning them. However, according to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture's Burn Teaching Guide, you should never burn cardboard that is coated with a plastic-y residue, because this will release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. Use cardboard as kindling to start an outdoor fire. You can add newspaper as well if you wish. Place split logs crisscrossed in the fire venue and light the cardboard. Blow on it to keep it from going out. Do not throw large pieces of cardboard on top of a fire because it will smother the fire and put it out.
Do not eat the seeds or allow your animals (especially dogs) to eat the seeds, as they are poisonous.
|Light Requirement: Bright Light|
|Height: 4 - 5 Feet Tall|
|Spread: 6 Feet Wide|
|Foliage Color(s): Deep Green|
|Flower Color: N/A|
|Bloom Period: N/A|
|Scientific Name: Zamia furfuracea|
|Common Name: Cardboard Palm|
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The Cycad collection at the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide is worth a special look. It contains Cycads from the arid areas of the world - plants that have evolved to cope with hot, dry conditions, and that use water sparingly.
Cycads are fascinating. They are ancient cone-bearing plants that co-existed with dinosaurs and covered vast areas of the Earth's surface 200 million years ago, before flowering plants evolved. Three families remain, consisting of about 250 species, and this collection features 82 of them.
Cycads are being rediscovered for use in environmentally-sustainable gardens and landscaping for the 21st century because of their lush, architectural, palm-like appearance.
One of the fascinating things about Cycads is the way they reproduce. They're dioecious, which means that male and female cones are born on separate plants.
The male cone from Cycas revoluta or the sago palm from Japan is long and slender.
The female cone is much broader and fatter and inside it's possible to see the seeds developing. This is probably the most common Cycad, and it's a really hardy plant. It grows in full sun, semi-shade, coastal conditions, in a pot, and will produce either a single-trunk or multi-stemmed plant. It's really fantastic with its gorgeous dark green foliage. It's also long-lived with a specimen in Japan that's over a thousand years old.
Encephalartos altensteinii produces stunning male cones that are up to 45 centimetres long, and resemble a giant pineapple. Its foliage is spiky so it wouldn't be suitable for planting near a path, and it can grow up to 3 metres high.
Encephalartos ferox from Zululand in South Africa has fantastic reddish-orange cones on the female plant. The foliage is leathery and incredibly prickly, so you can hardly get near it. It's slow-growing and will eventually get to about 1.8 metres high.
All the Cycads in the collection are hardy and adaptable to a range of soils, but good drainage is essential.
Cycads can be used virtually anywhere. They look fabulous in large pots either side of a doorway do well as feature plants in a dry land garden design fit well into the smallest garden or balcony and look spectacular as mass plantings in feature beds, flanking driveways, gates and doorways.
Zamia furfuracea or the cardboard plant from Eastern Mexico has been used for some stunning landscaping in Adelaide. Its foliage is architectural - stiff and upright, pale green on one side and brownish on the back of the leaves. It's low-growing, making it ideal for mass planting, but also great for pot-growing, even inside.
Cycads are a great substitute for palms, where you want a good crown without the height of the trunk. In fact they're often mistaken for palms or tree ferns.
A beautiful specimen Dioon spinulosum from Southern Mexico has fantastic grey-green foliage but is a little prickly, so be careful where you position it. It grows with a trunk to a metre high and the female plant has fabulous grey, woolly cones.
If stressed, Cycads can suffer from scale and chewing insects. But if the soil is well drained, they get regular deep, watering in the first few years, and are fed with a good balanced fertiliser, Cycads will thrive, generally resisting pests and diseases.
With so many arid-zone species to choose from, Cycads are ideal plants to include as part of new, sustainable landscapes.
The Cycad collection is located in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, North Terrace, Adelaide.
Removing a large cardboard palm (Zamia furfuracea) root requires a lot of sweat and maybe a few tears. The cardboard palm is a stout, spiny plant with a thick trunk, long stiff fronds and a thick taproot attached to numerous smaller feeder roots. It belongs to the ancient group of plants called cycads. The cardboard palm grows 2 to 5 feet tall and 5 to 8 feet wide, taking up a lot of real estate in the landscape. You can chop down the top growth, but the large root will continue to take up garden space unless you remove it from the soil.
Put on heavy work gloves and eye protection before handling a spiny cardboard palm plant.
Prune to remove all the fronds. Work from the outside in, removing each frond where it attaches to the central stalk.
Dig a 6-inch-wide trench around the remaining stalk and fill it with water. Allow the water to drain through the soil. The water loosens the earth around the root to make digging easier.
Remove soil to expose the thick central taproot. As you expose more of the central root, cut away all the lateral feeder roots using a pair of pruning shears. Continue to dig until you find the bottom of the central root.
Slide a shovel under the root to sever any bottom feeder roots. When working with large roots too heavy to move, you can cut it into sections as you dig away the soil.
Wrap the spiny stalk and exposed root in a piece of burlap sack to protect yourself during removal.
Lift the root from the soil and lay it on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow.
Clean shovels, pruning saws and shears after each use to prevent the spread of plant diseases. Wipe blades down to remove excess dirt, and then rinse them with a 50:50 water to rubbing alcohol solution.
Eulalia Palomo has been a professional writer since 2009. Prior to taking up writing full time she has worked as a landscape artist and organic gardener. Palomo holds a Bachelor of Arts in liberal studies from Boston University. She travels widely and has spent over six years living abroad.
When planting a garden, it can be challenging to find plants that can be placed in the filer spaces to take up space. They can be just as if not more high maintenance then the flowers that are present.
This plant is unique because it flourishes in modest soil and low water but grows to cover large areas and can be left without maintenance for long periods. With its low maintenance seed propagation, it is easy to cover large areas with several plants at a low cost.
This plant is beneficial to areas that encourage drought-resistant yard and can still add a tropical beauty without the hassle.