This deadly leftover from the time of the dinosaurs

By Richard Wright

Published on Friday, October 19, 2012 - 11:13


This deadly leftover from the time of the dinosaurs

Taz with Richard Wright’s cycad.

GARDENING AN APPEAL reached me in that serendipitous way they do at the same time as news of a very unusual — and possibly unique — occurrence at Ventnor Botanic Garden.

Both concerned that unusual throwback to the time when dinosaur was king of the earth — the cycad, a great survivor that has not needed evolutionary change.

My correspondent, Marie Langford, bought a diminutive cycas revoluta some years ago from Lidl, the store which blends staple items with surprising bargains that peculiarly crop up and are never seen again.

One such was cycas revoluta, which she snapped up for £3 about three years ago. It failed to flourish and she wished she had persevered, admitting she was a trifle premature when she threw it out.

Now Marie wants to have another go but the only cycad she has found on her travels is a superior specimen at a local nursery — for £450 — which is a tad more than Marie wants to pay.

I have a cycad, which I bought from Erik Van Dam as he was preparing to close Bullen Mead Nursery at Ryde — which was a great loss.

For around £17, I recall, my daughter, Roseanna, and I walked away with 'her’ plant, which then had a spread of about 1ft. Ten years on and it has grown in our conservatory into a spiky specimen three times the size.

Had we a suitable well-drained, sunny site outside that is where revoluta would be because I have learned from Chris Kidd, the curator of the botanic garden, it is surprisingly hardy — given the right location.

I have also learned through reading a bit more about the plant it is also one of the least cat-friendly of species and, as Roseanna’s tabby, Taz, would tell you (if he could) he finds it absolutely fascinating as a nuzzling, scratching and chewing device.

But, Taz, beware. I, and you, did not realise you were dicing with death because the cycad sago palm is extremely poisonous to animals (including humans) if eaten, which is undoubtedly the reason for its success over so many tens of millions of years.

It is one reason, among others, the conservatory, and its plentiful supply of spiders to hunt, is now out-of-bounds to poor old Taz because Roseanna would never forgive me if her relatively new very good friend was to die at the hands of the older one.

Symptoms after eating include vomiting, diarrhoea, weakness, seizures and liver failure and, as a result, internal bleeding and nose bleeds.

If it did not kill him, Taz would never be the same again if he was to chew enough of the leaves. There was a spell, a couple of months ago, when he was sick a couple of times for no apparent reason.

What a shame, then, both for that reason and the stunning success that can be achieved outdoors, I have not got a spot like Chris’s for my cycad.

He e-mailed me last week with the exciting news one of his specimens is in flower — a highly unusual event in our climes — even in the microclimate of the botanic garden, which is not immune from sub-zero temperatures and snow.

"These plants are on the edge of what can be considered hardy," said Chris.

"When grown outside they are very high risk as, not only are they tender, they produce new growth in spurts (looking like shuttlecocks), and these are not related to season, so they can have these growth spurts in the British winter and die as a result.

"Our plants have been outside since 2008 on an extremely well-drained and protected site, and have grown well, the growth spurts luckily avoiding winter.

"While taking a group of visitors around several days ago, I noticed one has produced a flower, a male cone. I have never seen this out of doors. To my mind, it is a first in the UK.

"But, unfortunately, we will not see any seed as no female cones are present on any of our other plants."

So, if this is not unique and any of you out there have a flowering female, get straight on the phone to me.

I am happy to be a dating agency go-between. Should you be tempted, and not be the owner of a curious pet, cycas revoluta has a lot going for it.

The beauty of revoluta, as its name suggests, is its symmetrical form. That and its crown of shiny, dark green leaves, which appear on a thick, shaggy trunk, most of which is below ground in young plants. The trunk — very slowly — lengthens with age.

Among the best specimens I have seen were on what was called Crocodile Island in the Nile where the extremities of the leaves tend not to brown and die off as they do in this country, where they can look a trifle care worn. In that environment, there can be very old specimens with trunks over double my height but that can take many decades to achieve.

Should you have one, and want more, the best propagation method in this country is to look out for plants sprouting at the base.

Basal offsets, as they are called, can be popped in a pot and brought on.

It needs good drainage or it will rot. It is fairly drought-tolerant and grows well in full sun or outdoor shade but needs bright light when grown indoors.

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