As a grower of palms and cycads for the past 40 years I can honestly say that I have enjoyed nearly every minute of it. A memorable exception would be during the winter months of ’03 to ’04 when the temperatures were consistently cold at night and cooler than normal during the day. During one brief stretch the nighttime temperatures ranged from the mid teens to the low twenties Fahrenheit for three to four consecutive nights. Nearly all of my green form Encephalartos cycads showed the effects of severe cold damage, as most of the leaves of each plant had turned brown. To my surprise most of my blue form Encephalartos cycads only showed slight damage. I believe this may be due to the inherent cold tolerance that is common to their native habitat.
After the cold had finally passed, I could assess the full extent of the damage. I had the feeling that I was going to lose most of my larger green form Encephalartos cycads that I had spent many years growing. It was depressing to walk through the garden and see so many brown leaves. It took me about a month before I could pull it together and get to work at the task of cutting hundreds of dead leaves.
When I remove dead or declining leaves off of my cycads, I cut them into smaller sizes and put them in the compost heap, or distribute them around the bases of my cycads and palms, or spread them onto my garden paths. I feel it is important to keep the organic value of leaves and non seed-bearing weed and other organic material in my garden. After removing and dispersing all of the damaged leaves, all I could do was wait and see what would come back as the temperatures warmed up in spring.
As it turned out, most of my cycads survived! Those that didn’t make it were plants that had no canopy protection from the cold, and had a caudex of 4 ½ inches or smaller. I now believe that the greater caudex dimension or mass of the larger established plants is a significant protection against extreme cold temperatures. I don’t think that they could survive indefinitely in those temperatures, but for the temperatures and time frame that I have described, their size/mass was sufficient. I do believe the smaller diameter caudex plants succumbed because the cold temperatures were low enough and long enough in duration to freeze to the core of the caudex.
Spring and summer blessed my garden with many new flushes of leaves and almost twice as many cones as I had had in any prior season. I have heard from other growers that cycads that have endured any of a variety of survivable extreme conditions will often respond by entering into a “survival mode” and produce leaves and/or cones. Although I have no way of knowing to what degree the cold weather setback brought the onset of new leaves and cones, the circumstantial evidence leads me to believe that there is some truth to the “survival mode” response by cycads.
Grow and prosper,