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Cycads: Turn your Desert Garden into a Tropical Paradise With These Prehistoric Plants

Recognizable for their stiff, upright leaves, cycads can range in height from 3 feet to massive-trunked specimens that may grow as high as 40 feet.

Turn your desert garden into a tropical paradise with these prehistoric plants.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by David B. Moore

Nothing beats the exotic look of cycads in a landscape. With their rosette-shaped crowns of feathery foliage and eye-catching cones, they never fail to make a dramatic impact in the garden. Although the most recognizable cycad is the sago palm (Cycas revoluta), there are hundreds of species throughout the world. Sometimes confused with palms due to their stiff, spiky evergreen leaves, the two are not related. Cycads, in fact, are included with other cone-bearing plants, such as conifers.

“I collected my first cycad as a boy in Missouri,” says Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning horticulturist Brian Kissinger. “When I was young, my dad and I built a greenhouse and I filled it with all the palms, cycads and cacti I could find at garden centers, nurseries and on trips to Florida and Arizona,” he recalls. “Cycads are not common, and once you start to look closely, you can’t help but be captivated by them.”

Found in warm regions of the globe, cycads are considered relics of the past and are among the most ancient of all plants surviving today, notes Kissinger. They have a deep history, having co-existed with early reptiles millions of years ago. “If you’ve ever seen a diorama of dinosaurs, there are usually cycads at their feet,” says Gene Joseph, owner of Plants for the Southwest nursery in Tucson.

These low-growing beauties are often incorporated into landscapes for their architectural, palmlike appearance. Adding ornamentation and interest to the garden, cycads serve as dynamic focal points, whether grown in the ground or containers.

1. “Cycads’ primitive shapes and silhouettes make them irresistible horticultural subjects,” says horticulturist Brian Kissinger. Most have stems under a few feet in height, making them ideal as understory plants. Pictured here is Dioon spinulosum. 2-3. Leaf shapes vary between species, as can be seen in the wider Zamia furfuracea fronds, also known as cardboard palm, and narrow-leafed Dioon spinulosum.

Founded in 1977, the Cycad Society is an excellent resource for gardeners who want to further their knowledge. Annual membership includes  access to the Cycad Newsletter and the Cycad Society Seedbank. Visit for details.

1. In the low desert, cycads do best in shady conditions. Queen sago (Cycas circinalis) thrives under the canopy of a tree. 2. Cycads do not form flowers but bear reproductive structures known as cones or strobili. Kissinger notes that the seeds are toxic to animals, and should be removed by homeowners with pets. 3. Dioon mejiae is native to Honduras and Nicaragua.

• Choose a variety that thrives in your climate zone.
• Select a semi-shady spot, such as under trees or an area protected from the afternoon sun.
• Avoid growing cycads under mesquite or eucalyptus trees (or other water-stealing plants), as your plants will decline after a few years, says grower Gene Joseph.
• Place in well-draining soil. If soil has poor drainage, supplement with plenty of organic material. If grown in a pot, a cactus mix usually is sufficient.
• Water properly. Kissinger recommends using drip irrigation, giving plants a deep soaking three times a week in summer and once a week in winter.
• Fertilize once or twice a month during the warm growing season with a nitrogen source, such as fish emulsion (organic is best).
• Plant out of reach of small children and pets, as they are toxic.


• Mexican horncone (Ceratozamia mexicana)
• Cycas—blue/silver-leafed varieties (C. cairnsiana, C. ophiolitica, C. angulata, C. coutsiana)
• Cycas—green-leafed varieties (C. taitangensis, C. debouensis, C. revoluta)

• Dioon—all species (D. edule, D. califanoi, D. holmgrenii, D. meroleae, D. mejiae, D. spinulosum)

• Encephalartos–blue/silver-leafed varieties (E. horridus, E. trispinosus, E. lehmanii, E. arenarias, E. middleburgensis, E. princeps)
• Burrawang (Macrozamia communis)
• Zamia (Z. floridana, Z. spartea, Z. furfuracea, Z. kuesteriana, Z. loddigesii, Z. lucayana)
For more information, see Sources.

Although cycads are in decline around the world due to development and collecting, they can still  be found locally, including through the following resources:

• Desert Botanical Garden (plant sales),
• Pacific Palms Nursery,
• Plants for the Southwest (Tucson),
• Whitfill Nursery,


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