This group of unusual cone-bearing plants were so common during the time of the dinosaurs that many refer to the Jurassic Period as the “Age of Cycads.” Today they are the most threatened plant group on the planet. Lotusland’s Cycad Garden, sometimes called a “million dollar garden” because its development coincided with the auction of Madame WaIska’s enormous jewelry collection, was the last garden created by Madame Walska. Upon its completion, Charles Glass, the renowned plantsman who designed the garden, told Madame Walska, ” … this will be one of the greatest achievements of our lives.” Glass was not exaggerating. Lotusland’s collection is thought to be one of the most complete in any American public garden, with over 450 specimens and almost half of the known species.
Shrinking wild populations of cycads are threatened by over collecting, deforestation, agricultural clearing, and urban sprawl. While some species have found homes in public and private gardens, their desirability has also spawned poaching concerns. Zaitoon Rabaney, executive director of the Botanical Society of South Africa made the comparison, “Our cycads are rarer than the rhino and are more in danger of extinction.” Lotusland cares for many species of threatened cycads with five species in the collection that are believed to be extinct in the wild.
Of Beetles and People: Reproduction in cycads provides an intriguing look into the sophistication of plant evolution. Long before flowering plants needed bees and butterflies, cycads were being pollinated by highly specialized beetles. All cycads are either exclusively male or female, a phenomenon known as dioecious. As a side note, you may be able to spot the difference on your walk through the garden: Female cones are generally wider, more egg-shaped, while male cones are generally longer and more narrow. To ensure pollination, the male cones attract insects by emitting an odor. They then produce a higher amount of that odor and heat up to send the insects away, who are then attracted to a female cone by a similar mechanism of producing heat and odor. Cycads are some of very few plants that actively both attract and repel insects! In the absence of these beetles at Lotusland, our plant curators hand pollinate our cycads. People are pollinators, too!
Encephalartos woodii: Three distinct figures overlook the koi pond, their larger than life foliage resembling palm trees. E. woodii is extinct in the wild yet it is estimated that about 500 plants exist in private and public collections. A single male specimen was discovered in the wild in 1895 and since a female has never been discovered there can be no sexual reproduction of E. woodii. The entire plant was removed between 1903 and 1916, consisting of seven offsets and four stems, and sent to Durban Botanic Garden in South Africa. From there, propagations were shared with botanic gardens around the world. All E. woodii that exist today are clones of that original plant.
Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta): Even if you didn’t know it, you have probably seen a cycad before. Known as sago palm, this rugged cycad is popular in landscaping. This common name is a misnomer given it is a cycad, not a palm. Hundreds of thousands of Sago Palms are grown for the nursery trade each year. They are easy to grow: Sago Palms require moderate water throughout the year and are hardy, surviving temperatures in the low 20’s. Its stout trunk and stiff, feather-like leaves bring a touch of the ancient to many Santa Barbara lawns.
Encephalartos horridus: The blue-green foliage and curling spine-tipped leaflets make this South African cycad one of the most aesthetically unique species of cycads. Its Latin name, horridus means ‘horrible,’ a suitable name given its armor. Similar to the plants in Lotusland’s Blue Garden, E. horridus have a bluish color because of a thick, waxy cuticle that acts as sunscreen.
Notable species: Encephalartos horridus, E. trispinosus, E. lehmannii. E. heenani, E. latifrons; E. ferox, Wollemia nobilis, Lepidozamia peroffskyana.