Living fossil makes a nice house plant

Between 270 and 350 million years ago, long before dinosaurs came into being, scientists believe that the seed-producing plants first came into existence, during a period of earth's history called the Carboniferous Age.

During the Carboniferous Age, earth was much different than it is today. For instance, there were some insects, but no animals or birds. There were no trees or flowering plants, either. Amazingly, though, there was, and still is, a group of plants — the cycads — that hasn't changed significantly since the Carboniferous Age ended.

Today's cycads are frost-tender perennials native to the tropics. At first glance, they look like ferns. Yet even though these living fossils have long stems full of leaflets that cause the plants to look like ferns, unlike ferns, cycads have short, woody, stubby trunks. Unlike ferns, too, cycads produce seed-bearing fruits that look like pineapples and can weigh as much as 20 pounds.

"Zamia floridana" is a cycad that makes a nice-looking house plant. Also known as "Florida arrowroot," it's short, getting no taller than 2 feet. Long-lived, too, even decades-old specimens — growing in 6-inch pots, with 2-inch-thick trunks and 2-foot-long, arching, leafy stems — rarely get taller than 2 feet.

Similar to cacti and succulents, this plant practically thrives on neglect. But what else would you expect from a plant that's survived several planetary extinctions and millions of years of foraging by huge, plant-eating dinosaurs?

To keep a tropical arrowroot real happy and healthy, however, provide it with bright light and soil that drains freely. Then feed it with a house-plant food whenever new growth starts.

This week in the garden

I've taken advantage of recent snowfalls to scout our property for the tracks of critters that seem determined to dine on our plants.

The main culprits, again, are rabbits that must really be hungry, because uncharacteristically, they've nibbled the leaves and shoots of plants that are toxic, such as tulips, for instance.

Once I followed the tracks to where rabbits had been nibbling, I protected the plants once-and-for-all with portable, 2-foot-tall fences. So far, so good.

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