Ancient Plants with New Beginnings
Updated: Jun 9, 2022
Without a doubt, one of the absolute coolest plants in all of South Florida is the Coontie (Zamia pumila), the only native cycad that we have in our state. Cycads are an absolutely ancient group of plants that first showed up in the fossil record as early as 280 million years ago. They are also highly poisonous, containing deadly neurotoxins called cycasin, a derivative of cyanide.
Even though these plants are so toxic, the indigenous peoples of Florida relied on them as a staple of their diet. We even get the name Coontie from the Seminole name, "konti hateka". What they would do is dig up the plant and ground the root into a wet paste. They would then leave it out for months, allowing the paste to ferment. Fermentation is done of course by bacteria, and bacteria love sugars; coincidentally, those toxic cycasins are bound to the sugars in the roots, so when the bacteria eat the sugars away, the toxin is no longer bound to anything and can be rinsed out with water. At that point, it would be dried into flour and baked into bread. The fact that the Seminole figured this out with no advanced technology is remarkable, and I'll talk about more what happened when other people learned it in tomorrow's post.
Now, since these plants are so ancient, they evolved before flowers even existed. Which means common pollinators that we think of like bees and butterflies didn't exist yet either. So they are pollinated primarily by beetles (two species of weevils here in Florida). The male plants produce several small skinny cones that emit a pleasant odor that the weevils love, and it entices them to come have start feasting on the pollen and reproducing inside the cone like an Ancient Greek saturnalia, just mating and feeding and getting dusted in pollen. At some point, the plant decides enough is enough and starts burning all of its carbohydrates, raising the cones' temperatures and blasting that scent out at toxic levels. Think of it as the difference between a spritz of cologne vs. a high school locker room fumigating with Axe body spray. Eventually, the scent is so overwhelming that the weevils will flee the male cones, but be attracted to the female cones that are beginning to emit very light wafts of the same fragrance, attracting the weevils to enter her cone and pollinate the ovules.
Coontie is also the host plant for a beautiful species of butterfly called the atala (Eumaeus atala), meaning they'll lay their eggs on it and the caterpillars will eat the leaves and incorporate the plant's toxins so that they too become toxic to predators like spiders and birds.
As we mentioned earlier, the Seminole used to make bread with coontie roots, but then A LOT of other people learned the same techniques. Florida crackers and other early pioneers used it to survive as Americans began moving further south into the state, the U.S. Army used it to feed their soldiers during the three (unsuccessful) wars trying to exterminate the Seminole, and there was even a processing plant in Miami as recently as the 1920's selling ten tons of Coontie bread every week to Europe as a luxury food item. Now these primitive plants grow very slowly, so with so many people all harvesting it, it's population declined remarkably quickly.
A now famous article in 1888 referred to Atala butterflies as "the most conspicuous insect in all of South Florida". However, with how much we decimated the coontie population, their populations also plummeted, and they were considered extinct by the 1950's. It wasn't until the 70's that an entomologist explored barrier islands off the coast of Miami and found lush coontie populations, and sure enough, atala butterflies were still there. He brought them back to the lab and started breeding and releasing them, and over the last ~50 years, the butterflies have made a remarkable comeback. They are slowly but surely beginning to expand their range again, thanks in part to coontie being very hearty and thus extensively used in landscaping. They're not quite established this far north in Charlotte county on the Gulf Coast, but they are again plentiful down in the Naples area on this coast and from West Palm south on the East coast.