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Cladus: Eukaryota
Regnum: Plantae
Divisio: Cycadophyta
Classis: Cycadopsida


Cycadopsida Brongn. 1843

Vernacular names
Magyar: Cikászok (Szágópálmák)
Македонски: Цикаси

Cycads are seed plants characterized by a large crown of compound leaves and a stout trunk. They are evergreen, dioecious plants having large pinnately compound leaves. They are frequently confused with and mistaken for palms or ferns, but are only distantly related to both, and instead belong to the division Cycadophyta.

Cycads are found across much of the subtropical and tropical parts of the world. They are found in South and Central America (where the greatest diversity occurs), Mexico, the Antilles, southeastern United States, Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Japan, China, Southeast Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and southern and tropical Africa, where at least 65 species occur. Some are renowned for survival in harsh semidesert climates, and can grow in sand or even on rock. They are able to grow in full sun or shade, and some are salt tolerant. Though they are a minor component of the plant kingdom today, during the Jurassic period they were extremely common.

They have very specialized pollinators and have been reported to fix nitrogen in association with a cyanobacterium living in the roots. These blue-green algae produce a neurotoxin called BMAA that is found in the seeds of cycads.


The cycad fossil record dates to the early Permian, 280 mya. There is controversy over older cycad fossils that date to the late Carboniferous period, 300–325 mya. One of the first colonizers of terrestrial habitats, this clade probably diversified extensively within its first few million years, although the extent to which it radiated is unknown because relatively few fossil specimens have been found. The regions to which cycads are restricted probably indicate their former distribution in the Pangea before supercontinents Laurasia and Gondwana separated (Hermsen et al. 2006).

The family Stangeriaceae (named for Dr. William Stanger, 1812(?)–1854), consisting of only three extant species, is thought to be of Gondwanan origin, as fossils have been found in Lower Cretaceous deposits in Argentina, dating to 70–135 mya. Zamiaceae is more diverse, with a fossil record extending from the middle Triassic to the Eocene (54–200 mya) in North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Antarctica, implying that the family was present before the break-up of Pangea. Cycadaceae are thought to be early offshoots from other cycads, with fossils from Eocene deposits (38–54 mya) in Japan and China, indicating that this family originated in Laurasia. Cycas is the only genus in the family and contains 99 species, the most of any cycad genus. Molecular data have recently shown that Cycas species in Australasia and the east coast of Africa are recent arrivals, suggesting adaptive radiation may have occurred. The current distribution of cycads may be due to radiations from a few ancestral types sequestered on Laurasia and Gondwana, or could be explained by genetic drift following the separation of already evolved genera. Both explanations account for the strict endemism across present continental lines.
Leaves and cone of Encephalartos sclavoi
The fossil Cycad Zamites feneonis


There are about 305 described species, in 10–12 genera and 2–3 families of cycads (depending on taxonomic viewpoint). The classification below, proposed by Dennis Stevenson in 1992, is based upon a hierarchical structure based on cladistic analyses of morphological, anatomical, karyological, physiological and phytochemical data.

The number of species in the clade is low compared to the number of species in most other plant phyla. However, paleobotanical and molecular research indicates that diversity was higher in the history of the phylum. Fossil evidence shows that structural diversity in Mesozoic cycad pollen "considerably exceeds that seen in surviving genera today". The impacts of extinction on diversity are highlighted below. The disparity in molecular sequences is very high between the three main lineages of cycads, implying that genetic diversity in the clade was once high, but this fact has led to major disagreements about the divisions within the Cycadales.

The number of described cycad species has doubled in the past 25 years, mostly due to improved sampling and further exploration. Experts infer there may still be about 100 undescribed species, based on the rate of discovery. These are likely to be in Asia and South America, where areas of endemism are highest. Diversity hotspots also occur in Australia, South Africa, Mexico, China and Vietnam, which together account for more than 70% of the world’s cycad species. The taxonomy of the Cycadophyta is, however, now stabilizing.

Cycad systematists reject the biological species concept, because some clearly defined cycad species can interbreed and produce fertile offspring; this character is thus not disproportionately weighted when determining species barriers. The phenetic species concept, which states that a species is defined based on overall similarities with other individuals of the same species combined with a significant gap in variation with other species, is also rejected. Most cycad taxonomists agree on a modified version of the evolutionary species concept, The classification below is taken from Stevenson (1992).

Suborder Cycadineae
Family Cycadaceae

Subfamily Cycadoideae

Cycas. About 105 species in the Old World from Africa east to southern Japan, Australia and the western Pacific Ocean islands; type: C. circinalis L.; see also C. pruinosa and C. revoluta

Suborder Zamiineae
Family Stangeriaceae

Subfamily Stangerioideae

Stangeria. One species in southern Africa; type: S. eriopus (Kunze) Baillon

Subfamily Bowenioideae

Bowenia. Two species in Queensland, Australia; type: B. spectabilis Hook. ex Hook. f.

Family Zamiaceae

Subfamily Encephalartoideae

Tribe Diooeae

Dioon. 13 species in Mexico and Central America; type: D. edule Lindley

Tribe Encephalarteae

Subtribe Encephalartinae

Encephalartos. About 66 species in southeast Africa; type: E. friderici-guilielmi Lehmann, E. transvenosus (Modjadji cycad)

Subtribe Macrozamiinae

Macrozamia. About 41 species in Australia; type: M. riedlei (Fischer ex Gaudichaud) C.A. Gardner
Lepidozamia. Two species in eastern Australia; type: L. peroffskyana Regel

Subfamily Zamioideae

Tribe Ceratozamieae

Ceratozamia. 26 species in southern Mexico and Central America; type: C. mexicana Brongn.

Tribe Zamieae

Subtribe Microcycadinae

Microcycas. One species in Cuba; type: M. calocoma (Miquel) A. DC.

Subtribe Zamiinae

Chigua. Two species in Colombia; type: C. restrepoi E. Stevenson
Zamia. About 65 species in the New World from Georgia, USA south to Bolivia; type: Z. pumila L.; see also Z. furfuracea

Cycads are most closely related to the extinct Bennettitales, and are also relatively close relatives to the Ginkgoales,


Modern knowledge about cycads began in the 9th century with the recording by two Arab naturalists that the genus Cycas was used as a source of flour in India. Later, in the 16th century, Antonio Pigafetta, Fernao Lopez de Castanheda and Francis Drake found Cycas plants in the Moluccas, where the seeds were eaten. The first report of cycads in the New World was by Giovanni Lerio in his 1576 trip to Brazil, where he observed a plant named ayrius by the indigenous people; this species is now classified in the genus Zamia.

Cycads belonging to the genus Encephalartos were first described by Johann Georg Christian Lehmann in 1834. The name is derived from the Greek articles "en", meaning "in", "cephale", meaning "head", and "artos", meaning "bread".

Throughout the 18th-19th centuries, discoveries of several species were reported by numerous naturalist researchers and discoverers traveling throughout the world. One of the most notable researchers of cycads was American botanist C.J. Chamberlain whose work is noteworthy for the quantity of data and the novelty of his approach to studying cycads. His 15 years of travel throughout Africa, the Americas and Australia to observe cycads in their natural habitat resulted in his 1919 publication of The Living Cycads which remains current in its synthesis of taxonomy, morphology and reproductive biology of cycads, most of which was obtained from his original research. His 1940s monograph on the Cycadales, though never published (most likely because of his death) was never used by botanists. The most recent complete work on the cycads is the book by Norstog and Nicholls entitled "the Biology of the Cycads" published in 1998.


The generic name refers to the starch obtained from the stems, which was used as food by some indigenous tribes. Tribal people grind and soak the seeds to remove the nerve toxin, making the food source generally safe to eat, although often not all the toxin is removed. In addition, consumers of bush meat may face a health threat as the meat comes from game which may have eaten cycad seeds and carry traces of the toxin in body fat.

Cycad, known as sotetsu (Jap. ソテツ, Kanji: 蘇鉄) in Japanese, was traditionally a famine food in Okinawa - a last resort to turn to for sustenance during particularly difficult times[1]. A period of particularly devastating poverty and famine in the 1920s, caused in large part by Japanese economic policies in the island prefecture, is known as "cycad hell" or sotetsu jigoku[2].

Cycad known as Eenthu in Malayalam is a common food in Kerala.The seeds were cut and kept in sun or kept near the hearth in kitchen during rainy season to get dried. Drying is to reduce the toxin content of the seed.Outer shell is then removed and the collected inner portion is ground into power.Properly dried cycad seed powder can be stored for years together.

Food items like Puttu,Eenthu kanji,Eenthu payasam etc are made out of cycad seed power.These food items are particularly prepared in heavy rainy seasons in Kerala.

Cycad leaves are used to decorate venues during festivals, marriages and other community celebrations.

There is some indication that the regular consumption of starch derived from cycads is a factor in the development of Lytico-Bodig disease, a neurological disease with symptoms similar to those of Parkinson's disease and ALS. Lytico-Bodic and its potential connection to cycasin ingestion is one of the subjects explored in Oliver Sacks' 1997 book Island of the Colourblind. Cattle that graze in pastures containing cycads may ingest the leaves and seeds and develop the neurologic syndrome of cycad toxicosis known as zamia staggers.

Approximate world distribution of living Cycadales

Overall species diversity peaks at 17˚ 15"N and 28˚ 12"S, with a minor peak at the equator. There is therefore not a latitudinal diversity gradient towards the equator but towards the tropics. However, the peak in the northern tropics is largely due to Cycas in Asia and Zamia in the New World, whereas the peak in the southern tropics is due to Cycas again, and also to the diverse genus Encephalartos in southern and central Africa and Macrozamia in Australia. Thus, the distribution pattern of cycad species with latitude appears to be an artifact of the geographical isolation of cycad genera, and is dependent on the remaining species in each genus that did not follow the extinction pattern of their ancestors. Cycas is the only genus that has a broad geographical range and can thus be used to infer that cycads tend to live in the upper and lower tropics. This is probably because these areas have a drier climate with relatively cool winters; while cycads require some rainfall, they appear to be partly xerophytic. Potted specimens are found and thrive in global locations such as Canada, Russia, Finland and Chile.


There are no documented cases of sympatric speciation in cycads and allopatry appears to be the most common form of speciation in the group. This is difficult to study. as they are long-lived plants, so natural experiments have been investigated. One example is Cycas seemannii, which occurs only in Fiji, New Caledonia, Tonga and Vanuatu. Genetic diversity within populations was found to be significantly lower than between islands, suggesting that genetic drift is a likely mechanism for speciation, and is probably currently occurring between the isolated populations. Allopatry has also been proposed as the mechanism of speciation in Dioon, which predominantly occurs in Mexico. The many rivers that have shaped the region, and repeated glaciation and consequent disjunction, are thought to have been important in reproductive isolation not only in Dioon but in many other plant and animal taxa. Parapatric speciation may also have occurred, especially as cycads are pollinated by insects rather than by wind (Stevenson et al. 1998). As the range of the species grows, the individuals furthest apart are prevented from interbreeding, as insects have relatively small ranges and will not pollinate between these plants. If sympatric speciation has occurred in cycads, this would most likely be because of a host shift in pollinators, due to the very fact that cycads are uniformly dioecious.


The probable former range of cycads can be inferred from their global distribution. For example, the family Stangeriaceae only contains three extant species in Africa and Australia. Diverse fossils of this family have been dated to 135 mya, indicating that diversity may have been much greater before the Jurassic and late Triassic mass extinction events. However, the cycad fossil record is generally poor and little can be deduced about the effects of each mass extinction event on their diversity.

Instead, correlations can be made between the number of extant gymnosperms and angiosperms. It is likely that cycad diversity was affected more by the great angiosperm radiation in the mid-Cretaceous than by extinctions. Very slow cambial growth was first used to define cycads, and because of this characteristic the group could not compete with the rapidly growing, relatively short-lived angiosperms, which now number over 250,000 species, compared to the 947 remaining gymnosperms. It is surprising that the cycads are still extant, having been faced with extreme competition and five major extinctions. The ability of cycads to survive in relatively dry environments where plant diversity is generally lower, and their great longevity may explain their long persistence.
[edit] Conservation
Encephalartos woodii is extinct in the wild, and all living specimens are clones of the type

In recent years, many cycads have been dwindling in numbers and may face risk of extinction because of theft and unscrupulous collection from their natural habitats, as well as from habitat destruction.

About 23% of the 305 extant cycad species are either critically endangered or endangered, and 15% are vulnerable. Thus, 38% of cycads are on the IUCN Red List (2004), and the other 62% are in the Least concern or Near Threatened category (i.e. not actually on the Red List), or are data deficient. This value has changed dramatically within the past few years; 46% of cycads were on the 1978 Red List, and this rose to 82% in 1997. This was largely due to the recent discovery of over 150 new species, disagreements about classification, and uncertainty. This has not been helpful for conservation planning for the group.

Zamia in the New World, Cycas in Asia and Encephalartos in Africa are the most threatened genera. This pattern reflects the pressures on species in these regions. At least two species, Encephalartos woodii and Encephalartos relictus (both from Africa), are confirmed extinct in the wild. Cycads are long-lived with infrequent reproduction, and most populations are small, putting them at risk of extinction from habitat destruction and stochastic environmental events. Regionally, Australian cycads are the least at risk, as they are locally common and habitat fragmentation is low. However, land management with fire is thought to be a threat to Australian species. African cycads are rare and are thought to be naturally decreasing due to small population sizes, and there is controversy over whether to let natural extinction processes act on these cycads.

All cycads are in the CITES appendix appearing under the heading Plant Kingdom and under three family names, Cycadaceae, Stangeriaceae and Zamiaceae.

All cycads are CITES APPENDIX II except the following, in APPENDIX I:

* Cycas beddomei
* Stangeria eriopus
* All Ceratozamia
* All Chigua
* All Encephalartos
* Microcycas calocoma

Cycad seeds from species on APPENDIX II are not CITES regulated. APPENDIX I seeds are treated the same as the plants.

A Sago Cycad (Cycas revoluta) growing in England as a houseplant

Cycads can be cut into pieces to make new plants, or by direct planting of the seeds. Propagation by seeds is the preferred method of growth, and two unique risks to their germination exist. One is that the seeds have no dormancy, so the embryo is biologically required to maintain growth and development, which means if the seed dries out, it dies. The second is that the emerging radicle and embryo can be very susceptible to fungal diseases in its early stages, when in unhygienic or excessively wet conditions. Thus, many cycad growers pregerminate the seeds in moist, sterile media such as vermiculite or perlite. However pregermination is not necessary, and many report success by directly planting the seeds in regular potting soil. As with many plants, a combination of well-drained soil, sunlight, water and nutrients will help it to prosper. Although, because of their hardy nature, cycads do not necessarily require the most tender or careful treatment, they can grow in almost any medium, including soilless ones. One of the most common causes of cycad death is from rotting stems and roots due to over-watering.

Some insects, particularly scale insects, some weevils and chewing insects can damage cycads, though the pests are susceptible to insecticides such as the horticulture soluble oil white oil. Sometimes bacterial preparations may be used to control insect infestation on cycads. When some of the mature plants prepare for reproduction, though, the presence of weevils has been shown to help accomplish pollination.

While the cycads have a reputation of slow growth, it is not always well-founded, and some actually grow quite fast, achieving reproductive maturity in 2–3 years (as with some Zamia species), while others in 15 years (as with some Cycas, Australian Macrozamia and Lepidozamia).


1. ^ Kerr, George. Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Revised Edition. Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2000. pp406-7.
2. ^ Smits, Gregory. "Okinawa in Postwar Japanese Politics and the Economy." East-Asian-History.net. Accessed 5 December 2009.

* Chamberlain, C.J. (1965) [1919] The Living Cycads, 1st ed. reprinted, New York : Hafner, 172 p., LCCN 65-027079
* Chaw, S.-M., Parkinson, C.L., Cheng, Y., Vincent, T.M., & Palmer, J.D. (2000) "Seed plant phylogeny inferred from all three plant genomes: Monophyly of extant gymnosperms and origin of Gnetales from conifer", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97 (8), p. 4086-4091.
* Chaw, S.-M., Walters, T.W., Chang, C.-C., Hu, S.-H., & Chen, S.-H. (2005) "A phylogeny of cycads (Cycadales) inferred from chloroplast matK gene, trnK intron, and nuclear rDNA ITS region", Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 37 (1), p. 214-234. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2005.01.006
* Chaw, S.-M., Zharkikh, A., Sung, H.-M., Luu, T.-C., & Li, W.-H. (1997) "Molecular phylogeny of extant gymnosperms and seed plant evolution: Analysis of nuclear 18s rRNA sequences", Molecular Biology and Evolution, 14 (1), p. 56-68.
* Crepet, W.L. (2000) "Progress in understanding angiosperm history, success, and relationships: Darwin's abominably 'perplexing phenomenon'", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97 (24), p. 12939-12941, doi:10.1073/pnas.97.24.12939
* De Luca, Paulo (1990) "A Historical Perspective on Cycads from Antiquity to the Present", In: Stevenson, D. (Ed.) The Biology, Structure, and Systematics of the Cycadales, Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden, 57, p. 1-7, ISBN 0-89327-350-3
* Donaldson, J.S. (2003) "Chapter 3: Regional Overview: Africa", In: Donaldson, J.S. (ed.), Cycads. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan, IUCN/SSC Cycad Specialist Group, Gland; Cambridge : UKIUCN, ISBN 2-8317-0699-8, p. 9-19
* Donaldson, J. (2004) "Saving ghosts? The implications of taxonomic uncertainty and shifting infrageneric concepts in the cycadales for red listing and conservation planning", In: Walters,T. & Osborne, R. (eds), Cycad Classification: Concepts and Recommendations, Wallingford, UK : CABI, ISBN 0-85199-741-4, p. 13-22.
* Donaldson, J., Hill, K.D., & Stevenson, D.W. (2003a) "Chapter 2: Cycads of the World: An Overview", In: Donaldson, J.S. (ed.), Cycads. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan, IUCN/SSC Cycad Specialist Group, Gland; Cambridge : UKIUCN, ISBN 2-8317-0699-8, p. 3-8
* Donaldson, J.S., Dehgan, A.P., Vovides, A.P., & Tang, W. (2003b) "Chapter 7: Cycads in trade and sustainable use of cycad populations", In: Donaldson, J.S. (ed.), Cycads. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan, IUCN/SSC Cycad Specialist Group, Gland; Cambridge : UKIUCN, ISBN 2-8317-0699-8, p. 39-47
* Golding, J.S. & Hurter, P.J.H. (2003) "A Red List account of Africa’s cycads and implications of considering life-history and threats", Biodiversity and Conservation, 12 (3), p. 507–528, doi:10.1023/A:1022472801638
* Gonzàlez-Astorga, J., Vovides, A.P., Ferrer, M.M., & Iglesias, C. (2003a) "Population genetics of Dioon edule Lindl. (Zamiaceae, Cycadales): biogeographical and evolutionary implications", Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 80 (3), p. 457-467, doi:10.1046/j.1095-8312.2003.00257.x
* Gonzàlez-Astorga, J., Vovides, A.P., & Iglesias, C. (2003b) "Morphological and geographic variation in Dioon edule Lindl. (Zamiaceae): ecological and evolutionary implications", Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 141 (4), p. 465-470, doi:10.1046/j.1095-8339.2003.00155.x
* Gregory, T.J. & Chemnick, J. (2004) Hypotheses of the relationship between biogeography and speciation in Dioon (Zamiaceae). In: Walters,T. & Osborne, R. (eds), Cycad Classification: Concepts and Recommendations, Wallingford, UK : CABI, ISBN 0-85199-741-4, p. 137-148.
* Hermsen, E., E. Taylor, T. Taylor, & D. Stevenson. 2006. Cataphylls of the middle Triassic cycad Antarcticycas schopfii and new insights into cycad evolution. American Journal of Botany 93: 724–738. 2006.
* Hill, C.R. (1990) "Ultrastructure of in situ fossil cycad pollen from the English Jurassic, with a description of the male cone Androstrobus balmei sp. nov.", Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 65 (1-4), p. 165-193, doi:10.1016/0034-6667(90)90067-S
* Hill, K.D. (2003) "Chapter 4: Regional Overview: Australia", In: Donaldson, J.S. (ed.), Cycads. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan, IUCN/SSC Cycad Specialist Group, Gland; Cambridge : UKIUCN, ISBN 2-8317-0699-8, p. 20-24
* Hill, K.D. (2004) "Character evolution, species recognition and classification concepts in the cycadaceae", In: Walters,T. & Osborne, R. (eds), Cycad Classification: Concepts and Recommendations, Wallingford, UK : CABI, ISBN 0-85199-741-4, p. 23-44. CABI, Oxford.
* Hill, K. & Stevenson, D. 1998-present. The Cycad Pages. http://plantnet.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/PlantNet/cycad/
* Hill, K.D., Stevenson, D.W., & Obsorne, R. (2004) "The World List of Cycads", Botanical Review, 70 (2), p. 274-298. doi:10.1663/0006-8101(2004)070[0274:TWLOC]2.0.CO;2
* Jones, David L. (1993) Cycads of the World, Washington, D.C. : Smithsonian Institution Press, ISBN 1-56098-220-9. 2nd ed. republished (2002) as: Cycads of the World: ancient plants in today's landscape, Sydney : Reed New Holland, ISBN 1-876334-69-X
* Keppel, G., Lee, S.W., & Hodgskiss, P.D. (2002) "Evidence for Long Isolation Among Populations of a Pacific Cycad: Genetic Diversity and Differentiation in Cycas seemannii A.Br. (Cycadaceae)", Journal of Heredity, 93 (2), p. 133-139. doi:10.1093/jhered/93.2.133
* Norstog, K.J. & Nicholls, T.J. (1998) Biology of Cycads, Ithaca : Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-80143-033-X
* Stevenson, D. 1992. A formal classification of the extant cycads. Brittonia 44: 220-223.
* Stevenson, D., K. Norstog, & P. Fawcett. 1998. Pollination biology of cycads. In: Reproductive Biology: In systematics, conservation, and economic botany. Eds. S. Owens & P. Rudall. Pp. 277-294. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Walters, T., Osborne, R., & Decker, D. (2004) "We hold these truths…", In: Walters,T. & Osborne, R. (eds), Cycad Classification: Concepts and Recommendations, Wallingford, UK : CABI, ISBN 0-85199-741-4, p. 1-11

* Whitelock, L.M. (2002) The Cycads, Portland, OR : Timber Press, ISBN 0-88192-522-5

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