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Macrozamia reidlei in Two Views

Two articles for the price of one, on an interesting Australian Cycad which many of us know as an easy house plant.
Dr. Maria Jutta Teege & Barry Shelton
Chamaerops No.24, Autumn Edition 1996

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Photo: Big specimen at Forestdale Lake (Photo by Barry Shelton)

By coincidence, we had two articles on Macrozamia reidlei in and around Perth, Western Australia, submitted at the same time, one from Germany and the other from Perth itself. Combining them into one article seemed the sensible thing to do. The first is by our regular contributor, Dr. Maria-Jutta Teege

Though their common name is Zamia Palm' they are of course, not real palms. They belong to the Cycads plant group and as such are closely related to the conifers. Usually, Zamia Palms' do not even develop a stem above the 2round, but their bunch of regularly pinnate fronds looks like the beautiful crown of a feather palm. Thus came the popular term 'palm'. In the history of the earth, cycads are very old. Much older than palms. While the first fossil records of palms date from the mid-cretaceous age about 100 million years ago, the earliest fossils of cycadophytes come from the Triassic period, some 225 million years ago. These early cycads were contemporaries of ferns, tree-ferns and horsetails, and of gingko, early conifers and seedferns, but no angiosperms (including palms) had vet developed.

The cycads and their companions lived and thrived in a mostly warm and wet climate for about 125 million years during the Triassic and Jurassic ages as the dominant land vegetation. But in the following period, the cretaceous, exciting changes in climate and continent building began. This was the dawn of the angiosperm and palms were among the earliest of them. The older flora had difficulty in competing with the new arrivals. Cycads could only survive in warm climates, and the subject of this article, Macrozamia reidlei, is indeed perfectly adapted to the dry open forests of south west Australia, to where it is endemic. Other cycad species live in the tropical north and east of the continent, some in New South Wales, and one is isolated in central Australia. Other species are spread throughout the tropical world. In and around Perth, Western Australias capital city, you can find plenty of Zamia Palms' which endure seven month's drought every year, togeiher with numerous bushfires. Your first view of them may be in King's Park, a wide area of native bush, close to the city centre with a rim of lawns and areas of gardens. If you are lucky you may come across a female plant having shed bright red seeds from one of its huge cones. All cycads are dioecious (sexes on separate plants) and the females don't produce fruits - as the angiosperms do - but only seeds. The fleshy red layer around the hard seed does not originate from a carpel but is part of the seed itself. Although they are said to be poisonous, the seeds have been used by the aboriginal people - after suitable preparation for thousands of years. Many indigenous animals feed on this outer red layer, which contains no poison, and leave the kernel alone, thus assisting with seed distribution.

In open eucalypt woodlands, Zamia Palms' are fascinating and eye-catching, growing where conditions are too harsh for palms. The stiff, hard leaves of Macrozamia can withstand hot sun for months and even after a bushfire the plants soon regenerate from below ground. In low nutrient, sandy soils close to the ocean coast, these beautiful plants present a somewhat tropical sight amidst an austere heath vegetation, and they don't suffer from the salt-laden winds.

The most impressive appearance howex er is of a Zamia Palm' with a mighty trunk. In Stokes National Park near the southern ocean west of Esperiance, we saw an individual with a stem about 2m high, and remarkably thick. This plant must be very old as cycads grow extremely slowly. Its stout figure could be seen as a symbol for the whole group, which provided companions for the earliest dinosaurs.

The second article is by Barry Shelton, 8 Fleetwood Road, Lynwood, Western Australia 6147

Here in Perth, Western Australia, we have a warm, sunny climate and palms are a very common feature of parks and gardens, but unfortunately we have no native palms in the surrounding bush. The nearest native palm is livistona alfredii, the Millstream Palm, locally common in the Pilbara region about 1300 kms north of Perth, but rather difficult to grow here.

We are however extremely fortunate in having native cycads in and around our city in vast numbers. How many species this involves is a matter of some debate. Predominantly, or perhaps entirely, they are Macrozamia reidlei which has stiff, slightly arching grey-green leaves rising in a V-shape from the rachis. The vast majority are trunkless and when trunks are seen they seldom exceed OSm and almost never exceed Im. The plants are extremely common in native bush around Perth, mostly in forest but also often in much more open country. Perth has many areas of natural bush in and around the suburbs and M. reidlei grows in many of them, including the famous King's Park. lt is also common in suburban gardens, probably most having been left there when the land was cleared. Lynette Stewart in her splendid book, 'A Guide to Palms & Cycads of the World' describes M. reidlei as 'rare'. Whilst I know that the meaning of the word in botanical circles may not be quite the same as in common usage, I can only assume that she never visited Western Australia when preparing the book. There are hundreds of thousands of these cycads both in and around Perth and when you consider that they grow over 400 km to the south across a large area of the south west of our state, plus over 100 kms inland from Perth, the total number must be huge.

To the north of the city for a distance of some 250 kms the cycads eventually develop sizeable trunks, up to 5m tall. David Jones in his excellent book, 'Cycads of the World', is confident that these are separate species naming them as Macrozamia sp. 'Enneabba'. Most of the local cycad enthusiasts are convinced that these are merely M. reidiei with trunks. Whilst on a family bushwalk around Forestdale lake to the south of Perth we found 3 magnificent specimens, one with a trunk of around 2m, the others with around 1.5m Several other specimens there seem to have leaves and cones which are longer than usual. The leaves of the ordinary M. reidlei display considerable variety. Whilst most are grey-green, some are a very bright green and very glossy. This may be due to their habitat. Some plants have leaves that are blue-green and very twisted; I was told that this was due to some sort of deficiency, certainly they usually appear to be in poor condition. Then I discovered some with these leaves that were growing vigorously and were in good condition, having concluded that they must be a separate variety, I then found some plants that had both sorts of leaves at the same time, so I'm mystified by it all.

M. reidlei is extremely hardy; over most of its habitat temperatures range from -2°C to 46°C, sometimes with no rain at all for months during the hottest times of the year. They survive this by storing water in their large caudexes or underground trunks. They can also survive the frequent, ferocious bush fires. They appear to be burnt to a blackened stump, but soon burst forth with a new set of leaves.

I don't know exactly where in Europe they would grow outdoors. In more northerly latitudes, the combination of cold and damp would probably be too much for them, but they are very common along the south coast of W. A. where the summer is much cooler and where rain falls throughout the year.

Something I have learnt from M. reidlei, and I think it applies to most cycads is that one should be very wary of giving them up for dead. A few years back I was offered a couple of them for free if I removed them from a back garden. The larger of them turned out to have leaves of more than 2m so I immediately gave up on that one. I would have needed a crane and a truck. The smaller one was a rather pathetic thing with just 2 scraggy looking leaves less than a metre long. lt turned out to have a very large caudex and by the time I'd finally dug it out I could barely carry it to the car. I planted it in an ideal spot, plenty of sun and not too much water, and for a year, nothing happened at all. Then one leaf died suddenly, then 6 months later the other leaf died. I was not pleased and decided that I was not going to try with another one. Then after nearly a year with no leaves at all, over the space of 2 or 3 weeks it produced seven lovely new leaves. That was a couple of years ago and although nothing has happened since, I still live in hope of a few more leaves some time before I'm shuffled off to the old folks' home.

Anyway, we're very lucky to live amongst M. reidlei. Of around 180 species of cycad in the world there can be very few to be found in large numbers and there can be very few cities in the world that have a common native cycad. Come to think of it though, Sydney does, this is Macrozamia communis, a particularly beautiful species. It, too, grows well in Perth but is not widely available.

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