As a cycad collector/grower/broker for a combined period of 40 years, I have had my share of success stories, as well as failures. This article is an attempt to explain, or at very least to ponder, some of the benefits I’ve observed while growing hardy habitat-collected material, which I refer to as “Heritage Plants.” I believe growing and propagating this nature-tested stock, from seed, plants, and offsets, has contributed to a stronger performing collection.
I have had the good fortune to acquire some of my early cycad species from a few intrepid and enterprising collectors, who collected and imported material from habitat. A full range of sizes of material was available on a regular basis. Today the acquisition of habitat-collected material is, for the most part, prohibited by most countries of origin, as well as many countries of destination, including the U.S.. Cycads could be imported legally prior to the establishment of the CITES Treaty (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in 1974. However, habitat plants are not exclusive to the pre-CITES 1970’s period. I do know that some habitat plant material has legally been imported as recently as the ‘80’s, ‘90’s, and early ‘00’s.
Overall I believe there is a difference between the “Heritage Plants,” and most plants that have been domestically produced. Domestic plants have been derived by hand pollination, and the seed has been primarily generated by hobbyists and sold to other hobbyists, enthusiasts, or commercial growers for seedling production. In an effort to protect rare or endangered species, seedlings have been rightly or wrongly pampered along the way. Seed has been hand pollinated, rather than pollinated by insects. It has then been carefully placed in sterile medium, rather than dropped on top of the less-than-ideal soil in the wild. Germinated seed might then be placed in a temperature-controlled greenhouse, rather than be dispersed in the unpredictable conditions of natural habitat. Then, of course, the seedlings are watered and fed on a regular basis, rather than being subject to varying degrees of rain, snow, heat, cold, and drought of its natural environment. And this pampering may continue on until the plant reaches some degree of maturity. As a result, many more of the domestically produced seeds survive, compared to a smaller percentage of the seeds from a cone in habitat. The habitat seeds that grow to maturity are the survivors. Those plants pass their genetics on through their pollen, seed, and pups. It is for this reason that I value beyond measure those plants that I know have the provenance of having grown to maturity in habitat, whether they arrived as entire plants or arrived as offsets from mature habitat-grown plants. It would be a mistake to conclude that all domestically produced cycads lack a strong genetic makeup, but only time and maturity can differentiate between the weak and the strong.
As a result of domestic propagation, many plants are likely to be produced that conceal genetic deficiencies. This practice permits a greater percentage of weak seedlings to grow to the juvenile stage, thereby allowing many juvenile plants, that wouldn’t normally have survived in habitat, to grow to maturity. These mature plants, in time, then become part of the available seed production base for future collectors and enthusiasts. I believe that some mysterious deaths of juvenile and mature plants that had otherwise looked healthy may be attributed to the lack of the natural selection process that takes place in the wild.
When possible, try to acquire pollen, seed, plants, and/or pups from habitat-collected material. Most original habitat plants acquired in the early to mid 70’s are most likely decent sized specimens today. Some of the older collectors can often disclose the provenance of their larger plants. Growing “Heritage Plant” material passes along the genetic strengths that have survived and been passed down through millions of years of evolution. In closing, this article is in no way intended to condemn or discourage domestic pollination and propagation. It is merely intended to increase the awareness of those who do propagate cycads to try to exploit the “Heritage Plant” advantage.
Grow and prosper,