Coontie, Zamia pumila

The Coontie (Zamia pumila) is a species of woody plant native to the West Indies and Cuba. It was the first species described for the genus. It is found in a variety of habitats that has well-drained sands or loamy soils. It prefers filtered light to partial shade. It is now isolated to central Cuba and the Dominican Republic. It was once abundant in southern Puerto Rico and Haiti, but are now extinct due to extensive land use.

This plant has reddish seed cones with a unique sharp tip. The leaves are 2 to 4 feet long with 5 to 30 pairs of leaflets on each leaf. The leaflets are pinnate (having parts on each side of the stem) and linear or oblong. The tips of the leaflets have distinct teeth. They usually have prickly stalks. The plant itself is low-growing, with a 1.25 to 9.5 inch trunk that is similarly sized in diameter and often subterranean. Over time, a multi-branched cluster forms, with a large, tube-like root system that is actually an extension of the above-ground stems. Like other cycads, the Coontie is dioecious (having male or female plants). The male cones are cylinder-shaped and often clustered. The female cones are more elongated. Insects (typically the belid weevil) help in the pollination process of this plant.

This is a toxic plant producing cycasin. Cycasin is a toxin that affects the gastrointestinal tract and nervous system. Cycasin can be removed from the plant by careful leaching. Native Americans used the roots and stems for their starches, formerly known as Florida Arrowroot. Various insects, including butterflies, eat this plant and the ingested toxin becomes part of its defense system.

Image Caption:  Coontie, Zamia pumila. Credit: USBG/Wikipedia