The Huntington’s collection of living plants concentrates on several core collections, our most significant holdings of living plants that we intend to preserve, expand, study, and promote for public appreciation. Among them is our collection of cycads, cone-bearing plants of ancient origin. These plants have been around for hundreds of millions of years and once inhabited nearly every tropical and subtropical region of the world. Today, a few hundred species remain in natural populations around the globe, from Africa and Australasia to South and Central America.
In general, humans have given these remarkable plants little attention, with only a few having been used as sources of starch and flour. But interest warmed as people began to select and cultivate plants for their gardens, and as specialists turned their attention to understanding the nature and evolution of the world’s plant life. It turns out that cycads are remarkably interesting as samplings of early stages in the development of seed-producing plants and highly desirable as garden plants. Plant nerds love them, and even people who admit to plant blindness are known to stop and give them attention.
So what are some cycads you will encounter in The Huntington’s gardens, and what makes it worth your time to learn something about them? There are only 10 genera in three families, the most well-known being the genus Cycas. It includes the commonly cultivated Sago Palm, Cycas revoluta, which is native to the subtropical east coast of China and the southernmost islands of Japan.
Like many cycads, Cycas revoluta plants are similar to palms in making thick single trunks that bear large, bright-green, stiffly pinnate leaves. But they have little else in common with palms. Sago Palms grow slowly and seldom reach 20 feet; plants that have reached that size at The Huntington have been growing here for over a century. In contrast to palms (which are flowering plants), cycads do not procreate through flowers and fruit; rather they produce pollen and seed in cones. Importantly, cycads are dioecious, or unisexual; individual plants are either pollen-producing males or seed-producing females.
Not quite as common in Southern California as Cycas revoluta, but common at The Huntington, are the many species of Encephalartos native to southern Africa. These are favorites of plant collectors, partly due to their historical rarity, but mostly because these plants can be sculpturally majestic. And many Encephalartos species have great life stories, particularly the enigmatic Encephalartos woodii, a handsome clone grown around the world. Romanticized as the sole survivor of a now-extinct population, only one plant has ever been discovered in nature, one beautiful but reproductively unrequited male.
If you explore the areas east and south of the Huntington Art Gallery, you will discover striking specimens of Dioon, a genus of cycads native to Mexico. These plants love sun and well-drained soil, and will reward gardeners with repeated flushes of knife-sharp, feathery leaves. Searching the nearby shady understory, you’ll find another very distinct group of Mexican cycads, plants in the genus Ceratozamia. Sprawling, open, and somewhat disorderly, the ceratozamias make wonderfully carefree mounds that thrive with little water and hardly any attention. Not too far away, look for plants of the Australian genus Lepidozamia, noted for their lovely, massive cones, and one of which (L. hopei) is the tallest cycad species.
Spread more quietly around the gardens are smaller cycads in the genus Zamia. These plants are native to Central and South America as well as the West Indies, and were described by scientists not long after published accounts of the Asian Cycas (for which the family is named). Most of the zamias are tropical and require higher rainfall and humidity than Encephalartos, Dioon, and Ceratozamia. They will not survive outdoors in Southern California, so many are in the conservatory. You will find our largest plants in the Conservatory. Another, even more uncommon group that requires protection from heat and cold are the fern-like plants in the genus Stangeria, which you can encounter in the glass-domed Rose Hills Foundation Garden Court.
Massive plants of Macrozamia can be found in the Australian Garden. The macrozamias resemble palms even more than the Asian Cycas and are represented by many very different species. Walk through the tall eucalyptus forest where large, bright-green specimens of Macrozamia johnsonii seem curiously at home, allowing you to sense how it might feel to walk in Australia’s native forests.