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Coontie Zamia pumila (Zamia integrifolia)


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Family: Zamiaceae, Sago-palm view all from this family

Description Low-growing small, tough, woody cycad. Trunk often subterranean, forming a multi-branched cluster, with a large, tuberous root system; an extension of the above-ground stems. Leaves 20-100 cm. long, with 5-30 pairs of linear leaflets having indistinct teeth at the tip. A dioecious plant; male cones cylindrical, 3–15 cm. long; often clustered. Female cones elongated oval 6–15 cm. long, 4–6 cm. in diameter. Seed cones reddish with a distinct acuminate tip.

Dimensions Height: 3-25 cm.

Warning The root of this plant is toxic and may be fatal if eaten raw. Sensitivity to a toxin varies with a personís age, weight, physical condition, and individual susceptibility. Children are most vulnerable because of their curiosity and small size. Toxicity can vary in a plant according to season, the plantís different parts, and its stage of growth; and plants can absorb toxic substances, such as herbicides, pesticides, and pollutants from the water, air, and soil.

Habitat Cities, suburbs & towns, Scrub, shrub & brushlands, Beaches & shorelines.

Range Southeast, Florida.

Discussion This plant is poisonous, producing a toxin called cycasin that affects the gastrointestinal tract and nervous system. The toxin can however be removed by careful leaching, and the roots and half-buried stems were used by Native American people for their yield of a starch, formerly known as Florida arrowroot. The plant is also fed upon by various insects, including the butterfly Eumaeus atala, which sequesters the toxin inside its body for use in its own defense.

This plant is of critical importance to the Eumaeus atala butterfly. The butterfly, thought extinct until recently, is dependant on the Zamia integrifolia, as well as several other species of Zamia, for its survival. This is because at the larval stage, the Eumaeus atala caterpillar eats exclusively the leaves of the coontie. A half dozen caterpillars can completely strip a coontie bare, meaning that a large coontie population is needed to sustain the Eumaeus atala population.