Cycadophyta is a plant division that contains only trees, the cycads, which are palm-like gymnosperms. They first appear in the fossil record 280mya and haven’t changed much since then, although a fair few genera became extinct 200mya.
Cycads have long, narrow leaves, with either pinnate or bipinnate leaflets forming in a whorl at the top of a trunk or growing on slender stems from the ground. They vary greatly in size, with some reaching 18m high while others are only 30cm. Cycad leaves often unfurl as they grow and as lower leaves die their bases remain attached to the stem to form an armour-like casing. Like all gymnosperms, cycads do not produce flowers or fruits, instead they reproduce by cones.
Cycads appear in a geographical band that stretches from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn. They are mostly found in tropical and subtropical regions in both the northern and southern hemispheres, for example Central and South America. They can live up to a thousand years, but tend to grow very slowly.
All cycads are evergreens, with stiff long leaves. Many are pinnate (opposite leaflets along a central stem) or bipinnate (each pinnate leaflet divided into further leaflets). There is a little variety in the leaves of cycads, adult leaves can be blue-grey or green and they may be twisted or spiky. The veins in cycad leaves run in parallel lines from the leaf stem. Young leaves may be copper-coloured and in some genera they unfurl like fern leaves. Many cycads have stipules, these are small outgrowths at the base of the main leaf and can be useful in identification of plants. In general stipules can have different forms such as glands, hairs, miniature leaves, spines or scales, but on cycads they take the form of stunted leaf-like structures. In Bowenia and Stangeria the stipules are larger and fleshy, and their function is to protect the leaves as they grow.
Trunk and roots
Cycad stems are often thick, but are not true wood, instead they are fibrous and contain a lot of starch. Many cycads, for example Bowenia and Stangeria, have subterranean stems, these are carrot-like. Cycads also have specialised roots, termed collaroid roots, that form into coral like structures. Coralloid roots contain blue green algae that form a symbiotic relationship with the plant, fixing nitrogen for it.
It has recently been confirmed that cycads are pollinated by insects, which is rare for gymnosperms, but a distinct advantage for a plant that grows in tropical forests where there is little wind.
Cycads are dioecious which means that there are separate male and female plants, however cycads are one of the few plant groups that can change their gender, seemingly in response to stress such as physical damage or extreme cold. Plants are not as gender specific as mammals, (most are hermaphrodites) and although x and y chromosomes (the ones that differentiate gender) have been found in a few plants, the significance of these chromosomes in plants is still not fully understood.
When cycads are not changing gender, the process of reproduction is very similar to that of conifers, the male cones release pollen, the female cones receive the pollen and form seeds. However, being dioecious, the male and female cones do not appear on the same tree as they do with conifers. On many cycad genera, the seeds that form have brightly coloured seed coats called sarcotestae (sarcotesta singular). This is slightly fleshy and edible to birds and animals which aids in the spreading of seed and is a forerunner to fruit. (This can be seen in the picture to the right, with the red seeds forming beneath the brown scales, pushing them out as the seeds enlarge) Pomegranates and Ginkgos also have sarcotestae.
What is the difference between Cycads, Tree Ferns and Palms?
Cycads, tree ferns and palms can all easily get confused, all may have a central trunk, usually without side branches, and then a whorl of leaves at the top, consisting of a central rachis (the middle part of the leaf) with leaflets either side. All grow mainly in the tropics, although tree ferns can grow in more temperate areas too. However, the three types of trees are not closely related at all, each is in a different division, this can be seen most clearly in their very different ways of reproducing.
Cycads – Cycadophyta Division – reproduce by pollen, cones and seeds.
Tree ferns – Pteridophyta Division – reproduce by spores and have separate sporophyte and gametophyte generations. Leaves are divided into distinctive fern leaf shapes. Trunks tend to have leaf bases still attached, same as with cycads, and their trunks are also not true trunks, however tree fern trunks are made of modified roots.
Palms – Magnoliophyta Division – reproduce with flowers and fruits. Palms are more varied than cycads and may have palmate or fan leaves, or a trunk with spikes or smooth bark.
Cycadophyta Family Tree
Cycadophyta is a small division with only three families and eleven genera. A number of genera are now extinct, for example Beania and Crossozamia.
This is the family with the most genera – Chigua, Zamia, Ceratozamia, Macrozamia, Lepidozamia, Dioon, Encephalartos, Microcycas – and consequently the widest variety of shapes. The sarcotesta in this family are red, yellow or brown.
Zamia pygmaea is the smallest cycad and, at 30cm, is in fact the smallest gymnosperm.
Some species of Macrozamia have leaves so fine they look almost like pine needles or grass, whereas Zamia have wider leaves. Encephalartos has some species with distinctive spiky leaf shapes (see photo).
Cycadaceae contains only one genus Cycas. Although Cycas has many species, there is little variation in appearance, with all species having a stout trunk and a whorl of leaves at the crown. Cycas have notably different female cones to other cycads. The scales of the cones are open with seeds forming in between the scales, rather than underneath as in other cycads. The young leaves of Cycas are coiled (see near top for photo of unfurling leaves).
Stangeriaceae contains two genera, Bowenia and Stangeria. In this family, young leaves are coiled or folded. Stipules are present and the sarcotesta is purple. Most plants in this family have wider leaves than other cycads, although Stangeria paradoxa has leaflets as finely divided as a fern. Both genera have slender stems, with the trunk underground.