What's Blooming Week of January 1? The Stangeria

Stangeria (Zamia family)
Stangeria eriopus (Zamiaceae)
Origin: Endemic to South Africa

Originally believed to be a fern when discovered in Natal in 1835, live Stangeria plants were sent to grow at the Chelsea Botanic Garden in England. These plants were then described as “fern-like Zamias,” or “Zamia-like ferns,” on a hunch that they were closer related to cycads than ferns. This hunch proved correct when the plants produced cones, not spores, and were placed in their own family, the Stangeriaceae, along with the genus Bowenia. Just this year, thanks to DNA work, the “fern-like Zamia” hunch proved again correct, as both Bowenia and Stangeria were moved to the Zamiaceae, and the Stangeriaceae was done away with.

The confusion is understandable. Stangeria produces much of its mass underground, producing large, horizontally growing roots, which resemble carrots, and subterranean stems. It produces few leaves, which strongly resemble fern fronds, starting out as a pubescent fiddlehead and unfurling into a leaf which is atypically soft for a cycad, with a fine raised venation on the underside. Depending on the growing conditions, plants can take two different forms. Grown in damp shady forests, large lush green leaves appear, several per plant. Most cultured plants are grown in some shade, as this form is seen as more attractive. Other populations occur in full sun in grasslands which are ravaged from time to time by fire. These plants will have fewer, smaller leaves, yellowed by the sun. The plants keep so much of themselves safe under the ground due to this fire ecology.  

No amount of burying themselves can keep Stangrias safe from people, however. Xhosa and Zulu people have long made use of the root pieces medicinally, as a purgative and to treat headaches, and as a protectant against lightning strikes. Literally tons of root material move through medicinal plant markets annually. We have a small population of Stangeria eriopus planted just north of the sidewalk that takes you from the Fern Garden to the Bayfront and adjacent to the “Santa Claus” sculpture. Like all cycads, these plants are dioecious, meaning they are either male or female. When cultured together, pollination, seed set, and germination occur regularly, producing a small population in a rather short period of time.

Text by David Troxell