Zamia pumila syn. Zamia floridana
Two things make the coontie palm special. One: Zamia pumila is Florida’s only native cycad. And Two: It is the sole larval food for the Atala butterfly.
Zamia floridana or Florida arrowroot, as it is commonly called, prefers to grow in part day shade and moist soil.
Despite these preferences the plant will tolerate considerable sun and drought.
Preferably not at the same time.
Being highly salt tolerant makes it a good coastal landscape plant.
It can grow in very alkaline soil. Even coral rock. Though plants grown on sand grow much more vigorously.
The Florida arrowroot will slowly grow into a medium green “bush” 3-5 feet tall and wide from an underground stem.
There is considerable variability in the leaves. Some of the leaflets (growing along the mid rib) curl and twist, some remain flat. They twist more when sited in bright sun. Some forms also have a more upright growth habit than others.
Coontie is a Seminole Indian word which, roughly translated, means “flour root”.
They used the stems for food (after lengthy and laborious processing).
When the white man arrived in Florida, the Seminoles taught him how to process the stems.
In the mid 1800s, the process was mechanized and starch factories sprang up all around Miami.
That’s why there are so few of these cycads left in south Florida.
Of course, modern day bulldozing and overbuilding will have to share the blame for the decimation of native populations of these wonderful ancient plants.
Atala (Coontie Hairstreak)
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Zamia Cone Image
In true cycad fashion, Zamias reproduce sexually by means of cones which rise from the base of the plant.
See growing sago palms from seed for the details of this process.
The process is the same though the cones look a bit different.
Plants growing in the sun will produce more cones. Apply a high nitrogen fertilizer in June and look for cones to appear in August.
Coontie palm seedlings bedded out at a New Smyrna Beach nursery.
When planted in this fashion, the plants will form a tough-as-nails groundcover.
Hardy in zones 8b-11 but may suffer leaf damage when temperatures fall into the low 20s.
*Zamia pumila stems are toxic to humans if eaten raw. Only by means of complex processing can they be made safe to ingest. All plant parts are deadly poisonous to cats, dogs, and horses.
Using Coontie Palms in the Landscape
This mature specimen makes a fine tropical-looking shrub. It grows densely enough to provide privacy and it lacks the saw-toothed petioles of many palms. This makes it a friendlier plant for tight spaces where people may brush against it.
Coonties planted beneath Sabal palm trees in coastal Georgia.
Like the Sabal, Florida arrowroot is a low maintenance plant suitable for natural landscapes.
Use it as you would any other evergreen shrub.