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Garden Design

Z is for Zamia

Arno King

Arno King

August 8, 2012

Zamias are a genus of Cycad which, with the exception of the Cardboard Palm (Zamia furfuracea), tend to be forgotten – lost down at the lower end of the alphabet. But these plants can pack a punch in the garden and deserve greater recognition. While some species prefer the humid, protected, semi-shaded conditions of a bush house or under-storey, many species thrive out in full sun. And like many cycads, these plants are trouble free.

Blue cycad moth photo by Eric Chitra

With the Blue Cycad Moth devastating Cycas revoluta (Japanese Sago Palm) across the country (particularly those stressed plants growing in sub-optimal conditions) many people have written off cycads as being too high maintenance or unattractive. This is of course not the case at all, and very few species are damaged by this moth.

Zamias will attract the Blue Cycad Moths, and they will hover around them rather than other cycads. However when the caterpillars finally emerge from the eggs and take one bite of a leaf, they are goners. Instant pest control! The bite shows up as a tiny notch on a leaflet. This is imperceptible unless you look carefully.

Zamia angustifolia growing in the wet tropics

In my own garden, I have focused on the hardier dwarf species of zamia, after seeing these ornamental plants thriving in local gardens and really contributing to the character. Many have a dense fern-like character, yet are drought tolerant and sun hardy. They also look immaculate at all times, tolerating long periods of summer rain and humidity, followed by periods of drought. Just the kind of plants you want for a low maintenance garden.

Plant needs are minor – free draining soil, ideally with some organic mater added in the top layers and an organic mulch. Most species grow naturally in limestone areas, so the addition of dolomite lime chips, which will leach out calcium, magnesium and other trace elements over a prolonged period, enhances their growth admirably. A balanced ground rock mineral fertilizer and animal manures will ensure that the plants grow strongly, look lush and healthy and suffer from few pests or diseases.

Zamias grow best in tropical and subtropical climates with summer dominant rainfall. Some species will grow well in warm temperate area, however they require sheltered frost free locations. They also require well drained soil so they do not rot during the cool wet winters. In colder climates, many people grow these plants in pots so they can enjoy them in the garden during the warmer months and then bring them in under shelter during the cooler months.

Generally these plants grow as trunkless hemispherical mounds of leaves. Placed with space between them, and with a very low groundcover, this character is effectively displayed in the garden.

The best things about most of these small Zamias, is that they reach sexual maturity within 1 to 2 years. By mass planting a single species, you can produce your own seed and undertake further plantings from the seedlings that are raised. Seed is ripe when the fruit falls away from the cone. Peel of the skin (testa) and place seeds ½ covered in a community pot of sharp sand. The plants germinate rapidly and can be transplanted into single pots of standard potting mix once the first leaf is produced.

Some species which deserve to be more widely planted are discussed below. They will grow in full sun to part shade. Higher light levels produce more compact and symmetrical plantings.

Zamia angustifolia has fine leaves

Zamia angustifolia

This plant is a favorite of mine. It reminds me of a fern rather than a cycad, yet is tough, long lived, drought tolerant and will grow well in full sun. On mass, this plant provides an attractive foil to more dramatic plants or feature plantings. Combined with other green plants with varying textural qualities, it can contribute to a restful but satisfying landscape. Plants grow to around 500mm high by 800mm across. I like to plant them about 700mm apart to get a continual mass of fine foliage.

Zamia integrifolia in the shade

Zamia integrifolia

This is the ‘Coontie Palm’ of Florida and the Carribean. It is highly variable in the wild, with plants from different locations being very different in appearance and growth habit. There is some conjecture as to whether these plants do in fact represent several related species. I grow several forms of this species. My favourite is the one commonly sold as Zamia integrifolia. This plant is an eye catching plant in my garden with its small, shiny, fern-like leaves. The narrow, rounded leaflets are yellowish green when young, maturing to mid green. They unroll like a fern frond. Plants form rounded mounds of lush foliage about 400 high by 800 wide. I like to plant them 900 to 1.2 metres apart. I also prefer to grow them in full sun so the plants stay compact.

I also grow a plant commonly sold as Zamia floridana (which falls into the broader concept of Zamia integrifolia). It has broader leaflets and a different habit – looking more typically like a dwarf cycad. The leaves are a mid-green and this is an endearing, low maintenance plant that looks good at all times.

There are many other forms of Zamia integrifolia distinguished by place names. All are well worth growing.

Zamia vazquezii resembles a fern

Zamia vazquezii

This plant has been confused with Zamia fischeri for many years. As the latter is quite rare in cultivation, plants sold as Zamia fischeri are likely to be this species. You will have a hard time convincing friends that this is a cycad, for it certainly resembles a lush fern with a dense cluster of shiny cascading leaves. It soon grows into a large clump in the garden. This is an ideal plant for a semi-shaded well drained location. The plant has delicate weeping form with rounded toothed leaflets of a mid green colour. I grow my plants on a bank in the semi-shade of a brush box tree, and although still young they are starting to create a feature with their cascading leaflets.

In time plants grow about 400 high by a metre across. I like planting this species on banks or above walls where the foliage can cascade down. Place at 600 to 1200mm centres so the plant form a solid mass of foliage.

Due to land clearing, Zamia vazquezii is now endangered in the wild. This is another good reason to plant more of it in gardens to maintain genetic diversity.

These certainly aren’t plants that you will generally find in most garden centres or nurseries, however there are a number of specialist nurseries who regularly keep these Zamias in stock. Do some ‘surfing’ on the internet and you should track down a supplier. Annual palm and cycad society shows are another good source. The PACSOA show held each February at the Brisbane Botanic Gardens at Mount Coot-tha is certainly one not to miss if you are interested in these plants.

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Catherine Stewart
11 years ago

The cardboard plant has become the quintessential indoor plant – tough, always green and glossy but I’ve never looked at its more elegant cousins before. Lost, as you say, at the end of the alphabet! Zamia integrifolia and Zamia vazquezii (I admire your pronunciation – I wouldn’t have known where to begin!) look like good candidates for a shady but protected Sydney garden?

Arno King
Arno King
10 years ago

I think Zamia integrifolia or vazquezii would do well in a sheltered spot in your Sydney garden Catherine. They are such low maintenance and hardy plants. This has really been brought home to me during the extremely hot and dry weather we have been having. The plants look as fresh as ever.