Cycad in Suburbia

Gary reports on what we've suspected all along: that Cycas revoluta is quite hardy enough for the sheltered, temperate garden.
Gary Bethel, Wirral, UK.
Chamaerops No.26 Spring 1997

Cycas revoluta in three views

An article on the growth, habitat and cultivation of Cycas revoluta by Tony King was published in the Spring '96 edition of ' Chamaerops' . The following article is intended as further encouragement and incentive to other E. P.S members, which I consider a very important aspect of our society.

I first saw Cycas revoluta 'in the flesh' so to speak in a warm, nursery greenhouse: two, in fact; focal points amongst the gardenias and
hibiscus. They looked very impressive indeed hut also very expensive. That was in the summer of '93 and after this sighting I decided to seek out any information I could about these plants. Information in books, magazines etc. was pretty thin on the ground (I was not an E.P.S member at that time) but it seemed they all had one thing in common: very erratic growth habit. All varied wildly on hardiness, however I came to the conclusion that they must be far hardier than the minimum +13C quoted by some sources, and would probably take some frost.

The following April whilst on holiday in Tenerife I could see Cycas revoluta (amongst others) everywhere, some in the ground of course and some in clay pots in bone dry compost, which surprised me considering that although they like good drainage they originate from a very moist subtropical climate. This made me think if they can endure dry heat maybe they're tough nuts that can endure lower temperatures also.

Added to this the belief that they need very high temperatures to start into growth made me wonder as these plants were nearly all in a great flush of growth in Tenerife's mid-spring temperatures of 21-23C, occasionally 28C temperatures, easily attainable during the warm spells of an average British summer. So on return to Britain I decided to take a closer look at the plants seen in the Yorkshire greenhouse twelve months earlier. They were still there and had come down to half price, although still a lot of money this was now very good value considering the size of specimens and the rate of growth of these plants, in the back of my mind was the fact that even quite small plants are not cheap and would take many years to reach this size, even under perfect conditions.

I was not very popular as the wife, kids, dog and excess luggage were crammed in the back of the Astra whilst the carefully lashed up Cycad travelled first class in the front, held in place with the seat belt. That was the end of May and on returning home I proceeded to start hardening the plant off, although quite mild at this time it had been in a warm environment for quite a few years.

It was quite arduous carrying it in and out each day while trying not to damage the still strapped-up leaves which I was dying to release but would make movement even more difficult This is where impatience and maybe vanity nearly cost me dear. Briefly many people were to be at the house at the weekend as my brother was getting married and the bride was going from our house. How much more impressive would the Cycad look in the ground, instead of in a pot with its leaves taped up.

So in it went prematurely and when the leaves unfurled it looked great, that was on the Thursday but by the Saturday the weather had changed quite dramatically. The frozen faces and the jacket over my daughter's bridesmaid's dress on the video is a constant reminder.

From being generally mild, polar maritime air swept down the whole country with overnight temperatures close to zero, allied to the aforesaid winds. Within two days, two of the lower set of leaves had turned yellow and one of the upper set was showing early signs of changing colour. I must admit I thought I had killed it after only days in the ground, a fool and his money! would be the cry, hut amazingly the damage stayed as it was and with the two lower leaves removed and one of the upper trimmed hack it still looked very good. I was impressed with its powers of recovery and it spent the rest of the summer settling in.

Of course I did not expect any growth in its first year in the ground, considering the tiny pot the plant had been it, not much more than an inch wider than the stem itself, with a mass of suckers crammed over the sides. I reluctantly cut all but one of these off, hoping the energy would be diverted to the main crown. This process made the plant look neater and did no apparent harm. As a precaution, with its tiny root system I decided to stake it against windrock.

The summer of 94 was average and as autumn progressed I took no chances and put some protection up in readiness for the cold weather as it would be its first winter outdoors (in Britain at least). This took the form of a wigwam made from tall bamboo canes and canvas. The plant had been strapped up again to fit this structure around it with a flap that could be rolled back in mild spells. If memory serves, the winter of 93/94 was an average one but I was still very pleased that it had come through its first seemingly unaffected other than by what I call mechanical damage where the fronds had been bent back some of the leaflets had been harmed and immediately turned dull pale green then brown, I decided never to use this practise again, any future protection would have to cater for its natural spread.

As spring turned to summer (and what a summer I'm sure I need remind no one), the Cycad looked wonderful and whereas I would normally not have expected signs of life at this early stage I became somewhat optimistic. With the weeks and eventually months of glorious warm and sometimes very hot sunshine, keeping it well watered throughout understanding that when in active growth is when they need the most moisture but again I thought it could still have a tiny root system.

By this time I had become an EPS member and thus no longer alone, so to speak. From my earlier research I bad an idea that a few other people were trying out Cycas revoluta, some of whom I was now in touch with. I was greatly encouraged when MG's plant burst into life in August down in London and even more so when Richard Darlow's in his garden further north like my own came to life at the end of August. Alas! mine just sat there apart from the fact that the tiny tuft of furry embryo leafcovers seemed to have swollen from half an inch to maybe one inch but it was hard to tell (a watched pot and all that).

The autumn was very mild and warm, in fact at times even going into December was very mild, but nevertheless I started to make early preparations for protection because as mentioned above I planned to do something that would not harm the plant in the process. This time it consisted of being surrounded on three sides with double walled clear polycarbonate plastic lashed together with household wire for extra rigidity and something to throw a cover over.

So at the end of November the plant was ready to he covered at a moment's notice, on one or two chillier nights I had rested a polystyrene square on the structure (the type fridges etc. come in), over cautious I know but now so simple to do. This was just as well, for what happened next must have surprised everybody, not least myself. The sudden change from very mild weather to bitterly cold Siberian weather as the NE winds swept in, and some parts of central Scotland suffered record lows of an unbelievable -29C! Throughout the whole winter the Cycad was virtually a prisoner under its cover of polystyrene and woolly blanket. On the rare occasions that the cover was not rock hard or under several inches of snow I would roll it back just to let some light and air to it and to see if all was well. By this time I knew that a cycad showed its displeasure almost immediately.

Although still cold I was relieved with the onset of early spring and it still looked glossy dark green. According to the. official local weather station at the Bidston observatory the Wirral experienced -6C and many days the temperature failed to rise above freezing point as the icy winds pegged temperatures down. On my own max-min thermometer I recorded lower temperatures than the official ones with several nights at -7.5C. Although these figures are nothing like the inland and highland temperatures quoted for Scotland, allied to their duration they prove my theory that Cycas revoluta will take a lot more frost then first believed.

Certainly mine was protected from wind chill and most importantly kept dry all winter, but considering the severity of the weather and the fact that it had changed its warm environment of the last 30 years or so for this, shows that it could be a very adaptable plant, though it's still very early days yet and it would not do to be complacent, however, time may prove Cycas revoluta to he nearly as hardy as, say, a Chamaerops humilis in a very warm sheltered position, though maybe needing extra frost protection in the most severe conditions.

Anyway with the terrible winter over, followed by an appalling spring, summer finally arrived and I found myself 'pot watching' again The first real warm spell, the mini heatwave of mid June, was enough to spring my Butia capitata into life hut no sign of growth to the Cycad. Mildly disappointed I got on with other things. Then in the next hot spell in July I became excited as I was almost certain new growth was imminent, the furry little tan crown in the centre that seemed to twist around to follow the course of the sun throughout the year appeared to he opening out and starting to swell, the older leaves were almost horizontal and then the definite sign I had been waiting so long for, the tan coloured crown seemed to pull back overnight to reveal the crowded tips of the new soft green leaves. In the warm weather that followed I soon bed a four inch spire in about one week.

As the weather cooled it still made steady but slower growth taking nearly a fortnight to double again, but the return of higher temperatures in mid August saw the fronds shoot up to about 40cm/I 6" and spread and expand to about half their final width in a single week. The highest temperature I recorded during this rapid growth was 80F/27C, a good deal cooler than say Leeds or London, seemingly proving great heat would be unnecessary, although areas of higher summer temperature would probably achieve faster results.

A word of warning to those contemplating growing the cycad which is not usually imparted or thought of: watch the new growth carefully as it is very soft indeed, very delicate and very easily damaged in the early stages of growth. I came out one morning to do the usual checks to find the tips of the spire pecked by birds. It was about eight inches high when this happened and made a perfect perch for our feathered friends, luckily the damage was only slight, about 1/4" off three tips but with going away for a week I was worried about further damage so I quickly made a cage out of chicken wire to go over the crown. On my return there was no further damage and the leaves had grown and expanded past this vulnerable stage.

Also keep a look out at night for earwigs amongst the parting spears. These pests easily show up under torchlight, the new leaves appear to he unaffected by spraying them with correctly mixed doses of insecticide. I have found the occasional slug climbing up the stem. The last week of August was unsettled with very heavy showers and occasional sunshine with temperatures averaging about 10C and although September started cool, overall the month was ideal for the growth of the cycad with several bursts of warm sunshine and much needed very heavy rain, so heavy in fact that I was concerned that the unhardened new growth would he damaged but it was not a problem.

Now into mid October the weather remained mild and the new leaves seem to have turned much harder. Quite suddenly they are very dark green above and a pale glaucous green below, in spite of being battered by strong north-westerly winds only slight damage to one or two of the leaflet tips occurred where they crashed together.

With the new leaves hardened and matured it will go into its third winter, I will of course give these new growths any protection necessary. Hopefully it won't be anywhere near as bad as last winter and this protection will be minimal and just for our darkest months. If all goes well as previous experience has shown I should have the pleasure of seeing the cycad become more and more established and maybe increasing in hardiness as its potentially vast root system spreads and hopefully becomes more accustomed to harsher conditions.

To expect a flush of new growth every year, especially at this latitude, is somewhat optimistic, in fact highly unlikely. But with two new rows consisting of 23 leaves and an increase of stem girth of another inch it makes a superb architectural feature to complement its neighbours and no doubt if it continues to thrive will grow again when ready, be it one, two or three years, with maybe even stronger flushes? Was it, or is it worth the effort for a plant growing on mainland Britain so exotic that it looks as though it should be illegal? I would say definitely yes.

Unless your address is 'Lamoran house' or thereabouts Cycas revoluta is not a plant to plunge in the ground and forget about. The aforementioned effort is required, it's up to you, but before you decide, turn to page eleven of 'In The Japanese Garden' by Elizabeth Bibbs and friends and see how much effort the Japanese are prepared to put in for this wonderful plant.

Foot Note: Due to a delay with photos I can report that the new 'protected' leaves have come through this Christmas and New year's weather completely unharmed, however, the lowest temperature I recorded so far has not been as severe as last winter's, at -3C.


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