Unusual ornamental plant has been around a long time

Photo: A.M. Costa Rica

Many streets and gardens in the Central Valley host living fossils. They are the so-called sago palms that are distinctive this time of year with giant cones protruding from the male plants.

The ornamental plants usually found in the city come from Japan. They are Cycas revoluta, which are painfully slow growing plants and perfect for ornamental use. There are many other native varieties and some are endangered.

Their ancestors developed about 300 million years ago and were among the first plants to produce seeds. They were well known to the dinosaurs. Of course, the history is based on fossils and not as clear as scientists would like.

Eventually flowering plants became dominant.

The plant produces a neurotoxin that can be deadly. The highest concentration is in the seeds, although some native tribes soak out the toxins and eat the seed. The stalk can be eaten, too, although it won’t be found at the supermarket.

There is no mistaking these squat plants with the broad leaves, which also are poisonous and very attractive to animals. The literature says that humans have been affected by eating meat from animals that feasted on the seeds.

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