Most people in their lives have probably been near one of these, had one or a few in their yard, and appreciated their beauty and shade. Shade? Yes, today we’re talking about flora rather than fauna: specifically, cycads! Often mistaken for palms or ferns, these plants have a long fossil record and are not closely related to either palms or ferns at all.
Cycads appear in the fossil record approximately 280 million years ago. At this time, Pangaea was still together. The first trees, including cycads, evolved. A lot of Pangaea was desert and dry for most of the year, with intense seasonal monsoon rains. This kind of climate favored gymnosperms: plants that keep their seeds encased in a seed covering that one breaks with rain. Cycads are gymnosperms.
As of right now, there is little fossil record to tell us exactly how cycads were affected by mass extinction events or changes in climate on a case-by-case basis, but we do know that they began to decline as the weather warmed in the Cretaceous and flowering plants began to evolve. Flowering plants are angiosperms, not gymnosperms, and makeup about 90% of all plant life on Earth today. A key difference between gymnosperms and angiosperms is that angiosperms fertilize their seeds in the fruit, while gymnosperms have no fruit.
Although cycads used to be much more common (scientists believe that there could be as many as 500 species of cycads, many of which are unknown to us still), they haven’t gone away. There are approximately 100-200 species of cycads living today. Cycads grow in tropical and subtropical climates around the world. Some species of cycads are so tough and resilient that they are able to thrive in desert climates and even in gravel and over rocks.
These trees are known to live hundreds of years, even sometimes reaching 1,000. This is because they grow slowly. Trees with the slowest growth live the longest lives. However, over half the species of cycads in the world are threatened with extinction. Growing them inside or in yards has kept many species afloat. I know that thinking about plants being endangered isn’t something most people (including myself) think about or remember often, but they are just at risk from poaching, deforestation, and development.
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