It's not surprising that this plant has a Jurassic Park look to it. Coontie, Zemia integrifolia, might look like a cross between a fern and palm tree, but it is a cycad, the dominant plant type of the Triassic and Jurassic eras — the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
It is, in effect, a living fossil. It is a Florida native — the only cycad native to the U.S. — also found in Georgia and the Caribbean. And it is part of Florida history, the cause of a war and, indirectly, the naming of a major city.
It is the sole host plant of the endangered atala butterfly, Eumaeus atala. As coontie goes, so goes the atala. When coontie became nearly extinct, so did the atala, but we're giving away part of the plot.
Once common in Florida's pinelands and hammocks, coontie is rarely found in the wild today but it's extremely common in landscapes. Coontie is a slow-growing plant, reaching as high as four or five feet and about as wide. Its flower is a brown cone, seen in the photos above; male and female flowers are on separate plants, the female flower being larger than the male.
The plant is filled with toxins but the roots are also filled with starch and protein, earning it the alternative name, Florida arrowroot. The Timucuan and Calusa tribes found a way to remove the poisons and recover the starch and protein by chopping the root, then washing and fermenting the pieces.
They would then make a bread out of the toxin-free paste that remained and it became an important part of their diet. We can only imagine the trial and error that must of occurred along the way. The Seminoles learned likewise, as did white settlers.
According to Eat the Weeds, coontie production became a source of tension between the settlers and the Seminoles to the point that the Seminoles began attacking processing mills along Florida's east coast. Thus, the Second Seminole War. Ultimately, a certain Major Lauderdale came along with some troops and built a fort on the banks of the New River to settle things down. Things did settle down along the banks of the New until Spring Break came along a century later, but that's an entirely different story.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the processing of coontie became so industrialized that a plant in Miami put out 15 tons of starch a day. It takes 100 pounds of coontie root to make 10 pounds of starch. It doesn't take much imagination to see what that scale of production did to the coontie population. And along with it, the atala butterfly. Now combine the oversized coontie harvest with habitat loss as Florida became more and more developed and less and less pinelands and hammocks. Coontie nearly vanished, and the atala for about a decade was considered extinct in Florida until the mid-1970s. Happily for both species, someone figured out that coontie makes a nice landscaping plant. It's still rare in the wild, and Florida lists coontie as "commercially exploited"; collecting the plant is illegal.
By the way, the major poison in coontie, cyasin, is what attracts the atala; the larvae take in the toxin the way monarch caterpillars take in milkweed poisons when they munch milkweed leaves.
Coontie is also something of a controversy among those who classify plants. Some say there are multiple species of coontie, as many as four in Florida, each subtly different from the other, each with its own range within the state. And different from coontie found in the Caribbean. Others argue for a single species. The Institute for Regional Conservation uses Zemia integrifolia as the scientific name for the plant. The USDA goes by Zemia pumila, while other names used include Zemia floridana and Zemia umbrosa. Some sources use Zemia integrifolia for Florida coontie and Zemia pumila for coontie growing in the Caribbean.
Coontie leaves are compound, as long as three feet and stiff to the touch. Leaflets are long and narrow. Flowers are definitely unflower like — the large brown "cone" seen in the photo above is actually the lovely blossom of the coontie. Male flowers are slender compared with female flowers and produce pollen. Female flowers are about six inches tall and thicker, covered with fuzz. A small weevil, attracted to coontie by the cycasin toxins, pollinates the flowers. When ripe, the flower will crumble, exposing orange seeds covered with a waxy coating called a sarcotesta (see the third photo below). Coontie can be grown from seeds or cuttings, but either methods takes considerable preparation. Coontie takes full sun or shade, can be used as a specimen plant, an understory planting or as a ground cover. It is drought tolerant, and in its native habitat, fire resistant because of its deep roots.
As we said above, coontie looks like a cross between a palm and a fern, but cycads are more closely related to pines and other gymnosperms (evergreens) than either look alikes. Coontie is a member of Zamiaceae. Other common names: Indian bread root, koontie, conti and conti-hateka, the Seminole name.