I am often asked what to look for when buying a cycad. For me, there are several things that come to mind that I feel are important criteria. First of all I usually look at the overall appearance to try to determine the general health of the plant. Of course you want a nice looking plant. However cycads can be deceiving at times. Occasionally a healthy cycad can look somewhat scraggly if it has recently been subjected to hail or windy conditions. This can cause the leaves to look a little beat up, but often this is something that the plant will rectify when a new flush of leaves is produced in spring or early summer.
The next thing that I will look at is how large the caudex or trunk of the cycad is. This portion of the plant is an essential element. It is the source of both the leaves of the cycad and the roots as well. It is where water and food is stored for times of drought. The size of the caudex will also give a good idea of how many leaves can be produced and also whether the plant is a juvenile plant of has reached or is approaching adult or coning size.
Cones on cycads are the reproductive structure that enable seed production to take place. Cycads are dioescious, which means that each plant is either a male or a female plant for the duration of its life. If a cycad is coning age (usually 10-20 years old), it usually has reached nearly “full footprint,” or it has nearly reached its full diameter. Diameter of the caudex is very important, because the larger it is, the fuller the flushes of leaves it can produce, and the greater the capability for producing multiple cones, or coning more frequently. As always budget comes into the picture, and you should purchase the biggest caudex that you can afford at the time.
Finally I will squeeze the main caudex and any of its visible offsets (pups) with inward pressure of both hands to determine whether the caudex is firm or somewhat mushy, or gives way under compression. If it does compress, I would not invest in that plant. It likely is suffering from any of a number of conditions that generally are not healthy.
The roots are the portion of the cycad that are the most difficult to assess, since they are out of sight. There is little that can be done to determine their condition. You can very gently move aside some of the soil and spot check the top portion of the roots to inspect their health. If all else looks good and feels firm, the odds are that the plant is healthy.
Grow and Prosper,