Sunshine State gardeners have rediscovered the Florida coontie (Figure 1) as a native plant well adapted to Florida yards. Its increased use in landscapes has encouraged the presence of the rare atala butterfly, which uses coontie as a larval host plant. Landscapers and homeowners can encourage either the plant or the butterfly by following the suggestions in this publication.
There are many different opinions as to the correct name of the species of coontie found growing in Florida. Some botanists report only a single coontie species in Florida (Zamia floridana), while others feel the coontie is represented by several species. Other species names proposed by one or more botanists for the Florida coontie include Z. integrifolia, Z. pumila, and Z. umbrosa. Z. pumila is the name used in the nursery trade as the botanical name for coontie. Subtle differences in leaflet size and shape, in addition to differences in the native ranges in the state, have been used by some botanists to delineate up to four different ecotypes of coontie (Figure 2).
Habitat and Range
The coontie is native to most of peninsular Florida and southeastern Georgia east of the Apalachicola River (Figure 3). None of the Florida native species are known in the West Indies, but related Zamia species are found there. Its natural habitat is dominated by pines and well-drained, sandy, or loamy soils. USDA hardiness zones for the coontie are between 8B and 11, which means it should survive a minimum winter temperature of 15°F.
The coontie was once a common plant in Florida hammocks and pinelands, but because of intensive collection for starch production and landscape use, it is not commonly seen in the wild. The coontie is included in Florida’s Commercially Exploited Plant List [FDACS/DPI rule 5B-40.0055 (c)]. Collection of the coontie from the wild is prohibited.
This herbaceous plant looks like a small fern or palm. Typically they are 1–3 ft. high (Figure 4), while forms in the Ocala National Forest can be as much as 4–5 ft. tall. The coontie has stiff, featherlike leaves, up to 3 ft. in length, which are attached to a thick, shortened stem. New leaves uncurl from the top of this stem. The thickened underground rootlike structure is called a caudex (Figure 7) and can be branched multiple times. Coontie leaves have slender leaflets, 3–6 in. long and attached like the pinnae of a feather along the stalk (rachis). The dark green leaflets are stiff and glossy.
Figure 4. Several coonties in the landscape of Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota.
Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS
Flowers and Fruit
This primitive plant is dioecious; thus, plants are either male or female and produce male or female cones. The sex of young plants cannot be determined until the cones form on the mature plants. Slender male cones are 3–7 in. tall and produce pollen (Figure 5). Upright brown female cones (Figure 6) are about 6 in. tall and are covered with velvety fuzz. At maturity, the cones of the female plant will crumble open to reveal angular or lobed seeds with an orange red waxy-looking, fleshy coating called the sarcotesta.
Female (megasporangiate) cone of coontie. Upon maturity, the cone falls apart, revealing individual “seeds” covered with fleshy orange skin.
Native Food Source
Spanish writings from the sixteenth century report that the original native Timucuan and Calusa people removed the toxic chemical, cycasin, from the coontie stem (Figure 7) by maceration and washing. They then used the starchy residue to produce a bread. This was an important food source that sustained them throughout most of the year.
Figure 7. The coontie’s underground stem is more properly called a caudex. It contains both starch and a water soluble toxin.
The Seminole Indians learned this process from the Timucuan and Calusa natives they displaced. The common name, “coontie,” is derived from the Seminole phrase “conti hateka,” which means white root or white bread. Another name for the coontie is “Seminole bread.” The Seminoles also used the starchy stem to make another dish called “sofkee stew.”
Around 1825, early settlers in the Fort Lauderdale area learned the Seminole’s technique of removing the toxin cycasin from the coontie to produce starch. By the 1880s, several mills were in business in Miami. During WWI, one mill was processing as much as 18 tons of coontie daily for military purchase. The starch content was said to range from 20% in winter to a low of 8% in summer. By 1911, the starch was known as “Florida Arrowroot.”
Florists sometimes use coontie leaves as greenery in floral arrangements. The foliage provides tropical appeal in arrangements and has the ability to last as a cut green. Cut foliage is bunched and shipped from local sources to florists.
Landscape Characteristics and Uses
Coontie’s high drought and moderate salt tolerance make it an excellent choice as a low-maintenance landscape plant for coastal Florida. The coontie can be planted in a variety of light conditions, from deep shade to full sun. Well-drained soils are needed, and a small amount of organic material will enhance growth. It may be used as a specimen, a foundation planting, or as a massed planting for groundcover. When used for groundcover, space the plants 12–20 in. apart. Do not plant them where foot traffic is likely to occur.
Because it is illegal to collect these plants from the wild, plants used for landscape purposes are nursery grown. The natural taproot is easily damaged when these cycads are transplanted from natural areas.
Seeds from the coontie are slow to germinate, and, when they do, the plant grows slowly. A nursery-raised plant may take five years to reach marketable size. This is why coonties are expensive and sometimes difficult to locate in nurseries. Established plantings provide seed for propagation. Artificial pollination may improve seed set because male and female cones may not be receptive at the same time. Successful germination is accomplished by collecting the crumbled female cones.
The orange red, fleshy covering—the sarotesta—must be removed, as it contains germination inhibitors. Some nursery workers float the seeds in water and pour off the floating, nonviable seeds. It has also been suggested that rattling seeds may have reduced viability.
To speed germination, the thick, stony layer—the sclerotesta—may be scarified by mechanical means (e.g., filing) or by chemical treatment (one hour of sulfuric acid followed by two days of gibberellic acid to initiate embryo growth).
Seeds should be covered with a thin layer of soil. Within six weeks of sprouting, seedlings are transplanted to containers.
Coonties with a single taproot may become pot bound in containers. These plants will be more difficult to establish in the landscape than those with more fibrous root systems. Dr. Bijan Dehgan developed a procedure to modify the taproot into a branching root system. Experienced nursery growers can consult his methods as noted in the references.
Soil and Fertilizer
Natural conditions for coonties indicate a need for well-drained soil. A successful soilless media for container production has been suggested as follows: one part Metro-Mix 500 (W. R. Grace Co.) or similar mix, one part sharp sand, one part perlite, one part pine bark, 5 lbs. of Dolomite, and 3 lbs. of Perk micronutrient per cubic yard.
Cyanobacteria (blue green bacteria) are known to associate with surface (apogeotropic or coralloid) roots of Zamia, allowing it to grow in poor soil conditions. These symbiotic organisms have the ability to take nitrogen from the air and change it into nitrogen nutrients. Using nitrate nitrogen fertilizer reduces the effectiveness of symbiosis, while ammoniacal forms encourage the uptake of nitrogen into the cycads. In the wild, a soil pH of 6.0 or more has been noted in locations with dense, healthy coontie plants.
Coontie Pest Management
Coonties have adapted to the natural environment of Florida over several thousand years. Weeds are best controlled by mulching around the coontie plants to prevent turf or other plants from competing with this slow-growing native. However, do not allow mulch to lie in contact with the crown, as this may encourage rot. Diseases have been noted in cases of excessive irrigation.
Some of the very few significant insect pests common to coontie are Florida red scale (Chrysomphalus aonidum) and hemispherical scales (Saissetia coffeae) (Figure 8). Damage to coontie leaves by scale feeding may result in irregular yellow patches on the leaves (Figure 9). Mealybugs, such as the longtailed mealybug (Pseudococcus longispinus), also are found on landscape coonties (Figure 10). These sap-feeding insects encourage the development of sooty mold (Figure 11). Mealybug destroyers (Cryptolaemus montrouzeri) are often seen on coonties, feeding on red scale. They look similar to mealybugs (Figure 12).
All of these pests can be controlled with insecticidal soaps or other contact insecticides. Identify any predators before using chemical insecticides to reduce pest populations. Check with your local UF/IFAS Extension office for the latest chemical pesticide recommendations.