Coontie Palm (Zamia integrifolia): History, Lifespan, Cultivation & Problems

The Coontie Palm, scientifically known as Zamia integrifolia, is a small, tough, woody cycad native to the southeastern United States (in Florida and Georgia), the Bahamas, Cuba, and the Cayman Islands. It’s not actually a palm tree, but a cycad, a group of ancient plants that predate dinosaurs.

Coontie palms are also known as “living fossils” due to their evolutionary stability over millions of years. They are the only Zamia species found in the United States and the only cycad native to the United States. The plant is listed as an endangered species in Florida due to habitat loss from construction.

These palms are low-growing evergreen plants, often subterranean, with a trunk that remains between 1 to 6 inches tall. They reach up to 3 to 3.5 feet in height and can have a spread of 4 to 5 feet. Each frond of the Coontie palm is about 2 to 3 feet long and can have anywhere from 5 to 20 pairs of leaflets.

Coontie palms are slow-growing plants that can live for hundreds of years. They have glossy, dark green leaves that resemble fern fronds. The leaves grow in a rosette pattern from a central trunk. Coontie palms are dioecious (there are separate male and female plants). Male plants produce cones that are yellow to brown in color, while female plants produce cones that are red to orange in color.

They are highly drought tolerant and generally remain disease-free, although they can have plant scale infestations. The plant contains toxins that are poisonous to both humans and pets, affecting the nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract. However, the plant’s underground stems and roots were historically used by Native Americans and early colonists to extract a type of starch known as Florida arrowroot.

Characteristics of Coontie Palm

  • Growth Habit: They have a clumping growth habit and can form small clusters. They form a mounding shrub with a central, thickened underground stem called a caudex. From this caudex, glossy green, fern-like fronds emerge in a rosette pattern, creating a crown of foliage. Over time, the plant produces suckers, forming a colony that slowly expands.
  • Size: The can grow up to 3 to 4 feet in height and spread up to 4 feet wide. They are considered compact plants, well-suited for smaller landscapes.
  • Growth Rate: Generally have a slow growth rate, taking several years to reach their full size. They may only produce 2-4 new fronds per year in the early stages, increasing to 1-2 flushes annually as they mature.
  • Leaves: The leaves are glossy and resemble a fern due to their “pinnate” or feather-like structure. They can grow up to 2 to 3 feet long and have a stiff, leathery texture.
  • Stem: Unlike true palms with a tall, visible trunk, Coontie palms have a thick, underground caudex. This caudex serves as a storage organ for water and nutrients. Above ground, there may be a short, woody trunk-like structure, but this is not the main growing point of the plant.
  • Seed Cones: Female Coontie palms produce upright, dark reddish-brown seed cones that are covered in a velvety fuzz. The cones contain bright red seeds.
  • Root System: Coontie palms have a taproot system, with a central, thick root that grows deep into the soil. This taproot is supplemented by a network of fibrous secondary roots that help with water and nutrient uptake.
  • Lifespan: They can live for several decades, with some specimens reaching 50 to 100 years old.

Growing Conditions and USDA Zones

  • Prefers partial shade to full sun. Can tolerate full sun in cooler climates but thrives with some afternoon shade in hotter regions.
  • Coontie palms thrive in warm climates and are suited for USDA zones 8b to 11.
  • They are not cold hardy and can be damaged by freezing temperatures.
  • Moderately salt tolerant. Can handle salt spray but not direct exposure to saltwater.
  • Drought tolerant once established. Water deeply when the soil feels dry to the touch, but avoid overwatering.
  • Well-drained sandy soil is ideal. Can tolerate a wide range of soil types, including loam and clay, as long as drainage is good.
  • Not a heavy feeder. A light application of slow-release fertilizer in spring can be beneficial.
  • Although it is a low-maintenance plant, occasionally individual leaves will turn yellow or die back, requiring immediate removal to keep the coontie palm looking attractive.

Common Problems

Scale: Coontie palms can be susceptible to scale insects, which appear as small, sap-sucking bumps on the leaves. These insects weaken the plant and can cause leaves to yellow and drop.

Mealybugs: Similar to scale, mealybugs are soft-bodied insects that suck sap from the leaves. They leave behind a sticky residue and can also weaken the plant.

Fungal Diseases: Coontie palms can be susceptible to fungal diseases like Fusarium wilt and Phytophthora root rot, especially in poorly drained soils or with excessive moisture. Signs include wilting, yellowing leaves, and stunted growth.

Nutrient Deficiencies: While not heavy feeders, Coontie palms can suffer from deficiencies in essential nutrients like magnesium or manganese. This can manifest as yellowing or browning of leaves, particularly between the veins.

Sunburn: Although Coontie palms tolerate full sun, especially harsh afternoon sun in hotter climates can scorch the leaves, causing brown or yellow patches.

Cold Damage: As they are not cold hardy, freezing temperatures can damage or kill Coontie palms. This can cause wilting, browning of leaves, and stunted growth.

Leaf Spot Disease: Leaf spot disease is one of the most common Coontie plant diseases. It is caused by a fungus that attacks the leaves of the plant, causing the appearance of small, dark spots that eventually grow in size and merge together, leading to the leaves turning brown and falling off.

Overwatering or Underwatering: Coontie palms are sensitive to both overwatering and underwatering. Overwatering can lead to root rot, while underwatering can cause the plant to wilt and the leaves to turn brown.

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