What are Cycads?

Cycads are small shrubs or trees with large rounded leaves. They grow from 2 to 10 feet tall and have round, white flowers in clusters on long stalks. The stems may reach 6 inches high. Their fruit is a seed pod that contains seeds inside it. The pods can be eaten raw or cooked like other fruits and vegetables. Cycas revolutas (or “crab grass” in some places) is native to Central America and Mexico. Its name comes from its resemblance to crabapples.

The Cycad Plant Family

There are over 200 species of plants belonging to the family Cycadaceae, which includes cycads, oaks, elms, ash trees and many others. There are two genera of cycads, Cycas and Cymbopogon.

Cycad Trees

C. alba is the most common cycad tree in North America.

It grows from Canada southward into South America and eastward through much of Asia, Africa and Australia. C. alba typically grows to a height of 3 to 5 feet and is a nettle-like plant.

C. chinensis grows mainly in the southern regions of China.

C. revoluta grows in the wilds of Australia, Southeast Asia, New Caledonia, Polynesia and Melanesia.

It is commonly referred to as the Sago Cycad or Coontie.

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C. quadrifida is a native of the southern U.S.

and Central America. It typically grows to a height of 1 to 3 feet and has four finger-like leaves at each growing point.

C. walkeri is a small plant native to southwestern Australia.

It grows to a height of 2 feet or less and has long narrow leaves that reach up to 4 feet in length.

C. zeylanica grows in dry regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and is a common sight near the banks of streams or roads.

It usually reaches a height of 3 to 5 feet.

C. hancockii is native to Australia and grows only to a height of 2 feet.

The stalks are covered with sharp spines that help protect it from animals grazing on it.

C. monostachya is a small African species that is only about 1 foot in height.

Its large leaves have two rows of spines on each side.

C. brevifolia is native to northern Australia and southern New Guinea.

It typically grows 2 to 3 feet in height and the leaves are 1 to 2 feet long.

C. australis is another small species that grows in New South Wales and Queensland.

It typically grows 2 feet or less and the leaves are up to 2 feet long, with each leaf having two rows of spines along its edges.

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C. marginata is a smaller plant native to arid regions of Australia.

The leaves are usually less than 1 foot long and each has a single row of spines along the edge.

C. monophylla is a very small plant that is native to South Africa.

Its single leaf has just a single spine along the edge.

C. scheffleri is an unusual species of cycad that has been found only on the coastline of Queensland, Australia.

It typically grows only 1 to 2 feet tall and each leaf has a series of raised lines running along its length. These plants are very rare in nature and few botanical gardens have them available.

C. australis, C.

hancockii and C. marginata are the three species of cycad that are considered to be endangered.

The Sago Cycad

Sago is a starch that can be extracted from the stems of cycads in a manner similar to the extraction of tapioca or sago from other plants. It is mainly used in the manufacture of cooking starch.

The stems contain a poisonous substance called cycasin that is removed by soaking the sago cycad stems in water for about five days. The water is then drained off and the sago is pressed out of the stem. The water is then filtered to remove the poisonous residue and what remains is the sago starch, which is a white powder similar to cornstarch.

The starch is extracted from the sago cycad only in Australia and the Philippines. The Australian product is preferred because it contains less toxic residue than that of the Philippines.

The Philippines banned the export of sago cycad in 1990 to protect its own limited supply, but illegal export still occurs by collectors who are willing to risk imprisonment.

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Some people have tried to produce sago starch commercially and have been successful but not with the sago cycad. Other types of cycads can be used with equally good results.

The seeds of the sago palm ( Metroxylon sagu ) and the trunks of the elephant ear tree ( Albizia lebbeck) contain a starch that is being successfully used in place of sago cycad.

Health Food Shops sell sago cycad starch as a weight loss aid. It is also claimed to be good for diabetics and to help reduce blood cholesterol levels.

Further research into these claims is being done.

The sago cycad is an excellent plant for collectors because of its unusual appearance and its rarity. It likes a well drained soil and moderate to bright light.

The smaller species should be kept dry during winter. They may be grown outdoors in subtropical or tropical areas.


Cycad seeds may be sown in large containers using a well-drained soil mixture. Cover the seeds with 1 to 2 inches of soil.

Water the container until the soil is evenly moist. Keep it in a shaded area until the seedlings emerge from the soil, which may take several weeks. Cycads cannot tolerate any sunlight and must be kept out of direct sunlight for 12 to 18 months after sowing.

As the seedlings grow larger, they will require more sunlight. They will also develop a trunk at this time.

Once this has occurred, expose them to full sunlight (but still protect them from any draughts). Water them thoroughly and then allow the soil to dry out partially before watering again.

Once the cycads are well-established, they should be fertilized with a dilute solution of a balanced fertilizer during the spring months. Do not allow the soil to become too dry and do not over-water (keep the soil lightly moist).

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The most common cycad is Encephalartos ferox. A related species is E.

horridus, which also has a very large leaf but is distinguished by its branched stem. It is not as common as E. ferox and is slow growing. Another variety is E. cycadifolius, which has a thinner leaf than E. ferox. It grows in the wild in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

The Encephalartos altensteinii is perhaps the rarest and most beautiful of all cycads. It has a tall, columnar stem, growing up to 15 meters high.

It is distinguished by its bright green colour and glossy leaves that resemble a pineapple. This cycad grows wild in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal provinces of South Africa.


The most important thing to remember about cycads is that they are very slow growing and take a long time to reach maturity (20 to 30 years). It’s best not to move them once they have become established.

Cycads contain a poisonous substance called “Cycasin” which can be dangerous to people and animals.

Cycads grow best in areas where the temperature remains at least 10° C (50° F). They will not tolerate temperatures that fall below 0° C (32° F).

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They must have adequate sunlight otherwise their leaves will turn a dull colour and stop growing. If this happens they should be moved into an area that receives more light.

Cycads are very tolerant of low light conditions and will thrive in shaded areas. They also appear to be more resistant to cold than other plants.


Because cycads have such a unique appearance, many people would like to grow one in their home or office. In order to do this you should select a pot that has sufficient room so that the roots can expand.

The cycad will grow very slowly and will not require re-potting for several years. It should be planted in a quality bonsai soil (approx.

3 inches deep) with the top 1 inch of soil mixed with a little bonemeal or crushed oyster shell. You can keep cycads in pretty much any type of decorative container such as a ceramic cache pot, as long as it has drainage holes in the bottom. If the container does not have drainage holes, it is possible to drill holes into it or add broken crockery to allow the water to drain.

As a general rule cycads do not require as much watering as most houseplants and will not tolerate standing water. Watering should be done when the top inch of the soil becomes dry.

In order to create the tropical environment that a cycad requires, you should place it in an area where the temperature is at least 21° C (70° F) and keep it away from any cold draughts. (Heated attic or patio are good locations).

In most homes cycads will receive sufficient light through an uncurtained window.

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Cycads are very slow growing, and in order for them to reach their full potential, they require a steady diet of minerals to encourage growth in a similar way that trees are encouraged to grow tall in a forest by increasing the levels of nitrogen. You can use a houseplant fertilizer such as 10-10-10 mixed at half strength and water the plant with this solution every two weeks.


Never handle a cycad during the summer while in leaf, as the leaves are poisonous and can give you a nasty rash or skin irritation. The best time to move or prune a cycad is in the early spring before they put out any leaves for the new year.

Remember that a cycad will continue to grow in height for several years after it has been removed from the ground, so it is important not to prune too much off when shaping it.


Cycads are very tolerant of draughts and cold temperatures. They can be placed in a cold hallway or bathroom and will grow quite happily.

The only thing they need is light, and depending on the size of the plant, a minimum four to six hours sunlight per day.

Naturally your average home or office doesn’t provide such ideal conditions, but there are some things you can do to help it along. If you have the resources, by all means follow the advice above.

If not, here are a few handy tips to give your plant the best chance of survival.

In nature, cycads are used to occasional fires which clear away the plants underneath allowing the sun to reach them; thus they receive more light. In an apartment block, it is unlikely that your neighbour is going to let you set fire to your apartment, but you can still increase the amount of light the plant receives by using artificial lighting.

Sources & references used in this article:

Fire and water: Aspects of Australian Aboriginal management of cycads by JM Beaton – Archaeology in Oceania, 1982 – JSTOR

Cycads: status survey and conservation action plan by CJ Chamberlain – 1919 – University of Chicago Press

Cycads and the origin of insect pollination by JS Donaldson… – 2003 – portals.iucn.org

Height increment of Cycas micronesica informs conservation decisions by K Norstog – American Scientist, 1987 – JSTOR



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