Tropical landscapes are widely known for being lush and showy, often with large, vividly coloured flowers.
Perhaps not the flashiest of tropical plants is the cardboard palm, or Zamia furfuracea, which doesn't have any flowers, but has a history that includes dinosaurs and landscapes that were vast, yet low in variety.
Belonging to one of the oldest known groups of plants, the cycads, cardboard palm dates back nearly 300 million years. Cycads are one of three major plants in what we know as gymnosperms. The other two groups are the conifers and ginkgoes. Gymnosperm, which quite literally means "naked seed," has no flowers or fruit and its seeds are its means of reproduction.
Cycads are universally dioecious, which means that the male and female organs are located on separate plants. A small weevil is the most common pollinator, transferring pollen from the male cone to the female cone, where the bright red seeds will form. These plants are unfortunately facing endangerment as a result of over-collection in the wild and from habitat loss.
Despite its lack of flowers, the cardboard palm is still attractive and is often used as an architectural statement piece in the landscape.
Its broad trunk, which is generally subterranean, holds the spiralling leaves that radiate from the center of the plant. These leaves are very stiff and long, thus attracting the "palm" reference in its common name. However, the cardboard palm is not a true palm — it only merely shares a similar appearance. The fuzzy leaves that emerge from the center form a mounding habit and are recognisable by their serrated margins.
Growing best in full sun to part shade, cardboard palm is low maintenance and highly resistant to pests and disease. Given that it is also very drought and salt tolerant, it prefers the dry conditions that we experience in Grand Cayman over the winter months. It does not begin to flush out new leaves until the rainy season begins.
Thriving in moist, well-draining soil — and sometimes even in gritty soil mixes — the cardboard palm is very slow growing, adding to its popularity for use in low maintenance landscapes like in its native Eastern Mexico.
Also sometimes called Jamaican sago and Mexican cycad, the cardboard palm might be pretty to look at and the seeds might look tasty, but all parts of the plant are poisonous to animals and humans.
Cardboard palms can be found throughout Camana Bay, with the most notable planting at the Solaris Avenue roundabout near Anytime Fitness.
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 print issue of Camana Bay Times.
About the author
Shannon Schmidt is the Horticulture Manager at Dart’s Arboretum Services Ltd. Joining Dart in 2012, Shannon previously worked in parks, public gardens and tourism properties, among others. Originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State, Shannon loves island life, spending time paddleboarding around the canals and mangroves, in the sea, and spending time outdoors with her two energetic Boston Terriers Nollie and Ebbie and her equally energetic partner Chase! Shannon holds a Bachelor of Science in Recreation, Park and Tourism Management from The Pennsylvania State University and a Diploma in Horticulture from the Longwood Gardens Professional School of Horticulture, and loves spending time swinging in a hammock, with her favourite smoothie from Jessie’s Juice Bar and reading material from Books & Books.