Some months every year we take time to write about species that may not be “in bloom.” Of course bloom implies a blossom; a flower. Whether because they are flowering plants just out of their reproductive, flowering season (with another particularly noteworthy trait such as a leaf or fruit) or whether that be that they are a noteworthy plant with no flowers simply depends on the month.
This month we focus on an entire family of plants; one that predates the evolution of the flower itself. Modern scientific methods and fossil discovery place the first flowering plant as emerging around 140 million years ago. In the period of time since, angiosperms – plants with flowers – have come to dominate the plant kingdom, currently comprising a full 90% of all plants found on Earth. With the abundance in color and form of flowers it may be easy to overlook the other 10% of plants, comprised of algae, mosses, ferns, and gymnosperms. The latter category, the gymnosperms (gymnos being Greek for naked, sperma for seed), is comprised of plants such as conifers, cycads, and the ginkgo, among a few other small, important groups that all bear their seeds in a more primitive, unenclosed state rather than in an ovary, as is the case with flowering plants.
Cycads comprise three plant families that the fossil record dates back to the Carboniferous Period – over 300 million years ago. They predated the dinosaurs, perhaps fed them, and have long-survived them to the modern day. Considered “living fossils,” it is believed that they appear today much as they did that far back. Superficially appearing as small, stout palms, cycads have stiff, compound, evergreen leaves. As flowering plants, true palms are only distantly-related to cycads and have existed on Earth for less than half the amount of time. Unlike most plants today, cycads are dioecious; each specimen being either male or female. Specimens bear male or female cones atop their thick, woody stems and are pollinated primarily by weevils or other beetles, depending on the species.
We have up to 25 species of cycad in the Ancient Plant Garden, including three specimens still to be identified to species level. The origin of our known species ranges from India to China, south into Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Worldwide, there are over 250 accepted cycad species, and they can be further found in eastern Africa, the Philippines, the central and southern Pacific, Australia, and North and South America. Most species are red-listed, indicating their predominantly decreasing populations due to the expansion of agriculture, urbanization, and extensive collecting for illegal trade.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text by Corey Barnes and Profile by Mona Bourell. Photos by Joanne Taylor, Mona Bourell and David Kruse-Pickler.