Coontie Palm Care Tips

The coontie palm or botanically Zamia Pumila [ZAM-ee-uh, POO-mil-uh] is a small cycad from the family Zamiaceae and related to the popular cycad known as the Sago palm (Cycas revoluta).

For those who do not know, cycads are the seed plants with a long fossil history and were once a lot more diverse and abundant than they are now.

Cluster of the coontie palm - Zamia PumilaCluster of the coontie palm - Zamia Pumila

Zamia Pumila is named after its genus Zamia because it was its very first species to be described; such plants are called ‘type species’. 

The second part of the plant’s scientific name – pumila – means small or dwarf, which refers to its size.

Native plants to the West Indies and Florida and Cuba, the plant is generally known with its common name –coontie palm and is the only Zamia species found in the United States.

This South Florida native plant is the only cycad native to North America.

It is also sometimes referred to as zamia floridana.

Zamia pumila is also often confused with zamia integrifolia, but the two are different Zamia species.

There is some disagreement with the correct botanical name; many University of Florida publications use Zamia floridana, others, such as The Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants, use Zamia pumila.

Other common names include:

  • Coontie palm
  • Zamia coontie
  • Seminole bread
  • Comfort root
  • Florida arrowroot

Coontie Palm Care

Size & Growth

Characterized by the distinct shape of its reddish or orange seed cones with sharp pointed tips, coontie palm is a low-growing evergreen plant and is often subterranean. 

However, sometimes it does produce a trunk, but it doesn’t grow high and remains between 1” to 6” inches tall.

The plant has a moderate growth rate and typically reaches up to 3’ to 3.5’ feet in height and can have a spread of 4’ to 5’ feet. 

Upon maturity, the plant forms a multi-branched cluster with long compound leaves and a large tuberous root system.

Each frond of the pumila plant is about 2’ to 3’ feet long and can have anywhere from 5 to 20 pairs of leaflets. 

The leaflets are linear or oblong and feature distinctive teeth at their tips. 

The leaflets are also often revolute i.e. curled back and have prickly petioles.

Flowering and Fragrance

Like all cycads, coontie palm is a gymnosperm and does not produce flowers or fruits.

But, it is dioecious and has elongated to ovoid female cones and cylindrical shaped male cones. 

The female cones tend to be slightly bigger and male cones are often clustered.

The female plants cones contain seeds, which get a beautiful bright orange color when ripened.

Light & Temperature

This sago palm prefers filtered sunlight to partial shade, but it is a hardy plant and can tolerate full sun and cold weather.

The plant is cold-hardy to USDA zones 7b to 10.

Watering and Feeding

The watering requirements of this zamia species are low and the plant is also highly drought tolerant.

However, keep a normal water schedule for the first growing season to develop a healthy root system.

Feeding the plant with a granular and preferably organic fertilizer promotes growth and hardiness. 

While a granular fertilizer is preferred, it’s OK to use a water-soluble fertilizer.

Early spring and mid-fall are the best times to fertilizer a zamia pumila plant. 

Fertilizing should be avoided immediately after transplanting and in hot summer months.

When buying fertilizer for coontie plants, make sure to always buy a good-quality one because the low-quality fertilizers often contain heavy salts, which are damaging for the roots of the plant and can lead to plant death.

Soil & Transplanting

Zamia pumila can grow in a variety of habitats provided it is planted in sand or sandy loam well-draining soils. 

It also enjoys moist soil but can tolerate the lack of moisture. 

However, make sure to not leave the plant in too dry or wet soil for extended periods of time.

After transplanting use a layer of mulch to help keep the plant upright.

Grooming and Maintenance

Since this Zamia species is hardy and can easily adapt to different growing conditions, it is easy-to-grow and low-maintenance.

How to Propagate Zamia Pumila

Coontie palm is propagated from seeds.

Collect the seeds when they get ripe, clean them to remove their sticky covering, and spread on the ground. 

Cover them with a thin layer of soil or leaves and they will germinate in about six weeks.

Seed cone and seeds of the zamia pumilaSeed cone and seeds of the zamia pumila
Seed cone on the left | right one seed cone with seeds exposed

Zamia Pumila Pest or Diseases

The plant generally remains disease-free but can have plant scale infestations, which need to be treated or they would cause serious damage to the plant.

Coontie palm is known to a toxin, called cycasin, which is poisonous for both humans and pets and affects the nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract. 

The toxin, however, is removed through the process of leaching.

Certain insects, such as belid weevils, act as pollinators of the plant whereas many feeds upon it. 

Eumaeus Atala, a butterfly species are commonly known as Atala butterfly, uses the toxin of zamia pumila for its own defense.

Coontie Palm Uses

Coontie palm is a popular choice for growing on borders and as a mass planting groundcover. 

It also grows well as an understory plant.

While the plant is not native to Florida, it is commonly cultivated there in landscape plantings, mixed with palm species or other evergreen plants.

Native Americans such as the Seminole Indians use the half-buried stems or caudex and roots of coontie palm to extract a type of starch, previously known as Florida arrowroot.

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