Cycas revoluta

Cycas, or dwarf palms

Cycas are evergreen shrubs, of medium size, belonging to the cicadaceae family; the genus has about ninety species, although in the garden in Italy only one of them is cultivated, cycas revoluta. Commonly known as dwarf palms, in the English-speaking countries, sago palm, although in reality it is not palms; the cycadaceae are among the most ancient plants present on earth, they are gymnosperms, closer as kinship to conifers than to palms. The name cycas comes from the Greek Koikas, which means: similar to palm trees. There cycas revoluta It is an evergreen shrub, very long-lived and very slow growing, which produces in the spring a feathery rosette, of greyish color, which develops in a group of long leaves, which resemble the palm fronds: they are evergreen, rigid and leathery, shiny , pinnate, consisting of long leaflets that develop along the central vein of the leaves, very marked. At the base of the green leaves, arranged in a spiral, there are other brown leaves, short and slightly fleshy, which serve as protection; the stem is stocky, of brown color, at its base often small polons are produced, which can develop into new specimens. An adult cycas can reach 5-6 meters in height, but the very slow growth causes the plants to reach these dimensions only over decades; generally in the gardens we admire cycas that do not exceed two meters in height, and we hardly see cycas with the branched trunk.
These plants also develop a very particular flowering; first of all they are dioecious, and therefore the female flowers and the male flowers are found on different plants; the male flower is a kind of elongated panicle, several tens of centimeters long, of white or cream color; the feminine flower, on the other hand, has a round shape, and is made up of structures similar to small pelosette leaves, at the base of which the ovary is clearly visible. When the female flowers are pollinated, the ovary develops becoming fleshy, and the flower resembles a basket of small orange fruits, similar to small-sized plums. The fruits of cycas are not edible, on the contrary they are extremely toxic and poisonous.

How to grow cycas revoluta

Cycas are plants that are widespread in nature in Africa, Asia, Australia and the islands of the Pacific Ocean; cycas revoluta is a species native to southern Japan; despite the appearance of extremely exotic plants, it is a decidedly rustic shrub, which can live without problems in Italian gardens; it easily supports minimum temperatures close to -10 ° C, although it may happen that lower temperatures that last over time ruin the leaves, leaving the plant bare: generally, when mild spring temperatures arrive, the cycas are ruined by frost produce new leaves.
Instead they fear the cool summers, because for the luxuriant growth of the plant it is necessary that it spends at least a couple of months a year with temperatures above 30 ° C, therefore they are not suitable to live in the mountainous areas, characterized by pleasantly cool summers.
If we live in areas with very cold winters, it is advisable to cover the plants with non-woven fabric. They are placed in semi-shaded places, with a few hours of direct sunlight a day, possibly not in the hottest hours of the day. They love a very well drained soil, consisting of garden soil, mixed with universal soil and sand or pumice stone, to improve soil permeability; often these plants are cultivated in pots, to be able to move them easily in case of unfavorable climate; in fact in many areas the cycas in winter is cultivated in a cold greenhouse. They do not particularly like the frequent repottings, especially if during the repotting they go to touch or ruin the root apparatus; then repot every 2-3 years, avoiding touching the earthen bread around the roots, and avoiding placing them in excessively large pots. The specimens abiding for a long time are content with the water of normal atmospheric precipitations, as the cycas tolerate drought very well, while they fear water stagnation; young specimens or in case of prolonged drought, it is advisable to water the plants, remembering to wash also the hair, to avoid the appearance of scale insects. During the cold months they do not need any watering.

Propagate the cycas

These plants propagate by seed, which the female plants produce in abundance, or for basal suckers; in both cases it is advisable to prepare many plants, because they do not always take root, and obtain great patience, because they can take about ten years to obtain a cycas just under a meter high, starting from a seed.
The seeds of cycas are covered by an impermeable layer, which allows the seed to survive outdoors all winter, before germinating in spring, which is why before sowing the large white seeds it is advisable to keep them soaked in clean water, possibly lukewarm, for a few days, so as to soften the external integument; after this operation, the seeds are left to dry for a few hours, while a mixture consisting of peat and sand in equal parts is prepared and placed in a seeding and watering tray. The seeds simply lean over the substrate and keep the soil moist for the following months; the seeds of cycas use some medium to sprout, during which the sowing tray must be kept in a sheltered and semi-shaded place, watering it regularly.
Basal shoots detach themselves from the plant in spring or autumn; possibly they come off with your hands, but if you risk risking the stem of the mother plant with this operation, it is advisable to use a grafting knife to remove them. At this point in their lives, the shoots are devoid of roots, so they are left to dry for a day, dusted with a rooting hormone, and placed on the ground, soaking them for at least a couple of centimeters; a very well drained fresh soil is used, and vessels with a diameter of one or two centimeters wider than that of the sucker; the pots must be kept in a greenhouse in winter, and always in a sheltered and semi-shaded place, and watered when the soil is dry. Let's not expect a rapid development, even the young cycas take years to become cycads a few decimeters high, to be able to place in the garden.

Cycas revoluta: A very poisonous plant

The leaves, seeds, fruits, cycad roots are highly poisonous to all animals, and also to humans; fortunately they do not have a particularly pleasant smell or taste for humans, on the contrary it seems that they have some success with rabbits and goats; so if we have some animals in the house, remember to keep them away from the plant, and to educate them not to get close to it, as the ingestion of even a small portion of leaf can lead to the death of the animal, as the substances in it contained work like a powerful poison, which quickly ruins the liver cells, and causes internal bleeding.
Although the plant is so poisonous, it is still cultivated for food purposes: in many areas of the Pacific islands the cycas are called sago palm, or sago palms; the sago is a kind of starch, contained in the trunk of cycas and some palms. To be able to use it, the plants are cut down and the stem is cut, the whitish pulp that forms the marrow of these trees is extracted and washed for a long time, to divide the starch from the fibers that make up the stem. The pasta thus obtained is then dried, and a flour is produced, used as wheat flour, to produce bread and cakes.
The production process of the sago completely eliminates the toxic active ingredients contained in the plant.
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