Majesty Palms
Credit: Malcom Manners CC-BY 2.0

Cycads are an ancient group of cone-producing plants made up of three families (Cycadaceae, Stangeriaceae and Zamiaceae). There are approximately 300 recognized species of cycads. This number has risen steadily over the past two decades as new species have been discovered. Cycads are often referred to as ‘living fossils’ because they have existed for over 200 million years – even before the dinosaurs!  They are sometimes confused with tree ferns or palms in overall appearance, but cycads differ greatly in all aspects. Male and female reproductive parts occur on separate plants (i.e., dioecious). Female plants produce flowers, which do not look like traditional flowers, and seeds if pollinated by a nearby flowering male cycad. The seeds are not enclosed in a fruit but develop as a cone similar to pine trees.

Palms are a large and diverse family (Palmae or Arecaceae) of flowering plants that may include as many as 2600 species. Most palms are recognized by their large evergreen leaves arranged at the top of a single stem and by their large seeds and fruits, such as dates and coconuts. You might be surprised to learn that the largest seed of any plant comes from a palm, called the coco de mer, which is native to two islands in the Seychelles and has seeds up to 20 inches across that weigh up to 60 pounds.

Cycads and palms are found in tropical and subtropical parts of North America, South America, Central America and the Caribbean, Asia, Africa and Oceania. They occur in a range of habitats, from closed canopy tropical forests to open grasslands and desert-like scrublands.  The centers of diversity for both cycads and palms are the tropical regions of Africa, the American tropics, and Australia. Both cycads and palms have been harvested for a variety of uses: for food (seeds and stems), ceremonies and decoration (leaves), basket work (leaves) and medicine or magic (stems, roots, bark). Cycads have a long history of being highly valued in Asian culture, also in Roman times, and have symbolic meaning in several religions varying from unity to hospitality to victory. Large numbers of cycads and palms are traded internationally mostly for landscaping or as houseplants.

Although cycads are a relatively small group of plants, they are among the world’s most threatened groups, with two species classified as Extinct and 52% of known cycad species imperiled, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Two palms are believed to be extinct and another 230 are considered imperiled, especially several that are native to islands. The main threats to both cycads and palms are habitat destruction and the harvesting of plants and seeds from the wild.


Laws & Regulations

Cycads and palms have varying levels of rarity and protection throughout the United States, and laws vary from State to State.  Several species of palms are Federally-listed under the Endangered Species Act.

International trade in most cycads is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The entire families of Cycadaceae, Stangeriaceae, and Zamiaceae are included in Appendix II, except for four species and two genera that are listed in Appendix I. For taxa listed in Appendix I, commercial trade in wild plants or plant parts (including seeds) is not allowed.

By comparison, relatively few palms are listed in the CITES Appendices - currently one species is in Appendix I, eight species are in Appendix II, and one is in Appendix III. Most of the CITES-listed palms are native to Madagascar and are threatened by the overharvest of seeds.

Increased artificial propagation of cycads and palms helps to reduce collection pressure on wild populations by supplying plants and seeds to commercial buyers and consumers. There are many growers in the United States that specialize in growing cycads and palms for ornamental use. According to a 2003 report pdf, an estimated 30 million cycad plants that were traded between 1977 and 2001, less than 1% of these plants were collected from the wild. Today, cycads and palms are popular landscape and house plants.

For more information on regulations for import and export of ornamental plants, visit the Branch of Permits, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).