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#9 - Coontie-coevolution

Coontie (Zamia integrifolia) is a native long-lived perennial shrub that has made a comeback in the last years as a beautiful and useful landscape plant in yards and along roadsides. Even though rare in the wild due to overharvesting in the 19th and 20th centuries, it grows naturally in coastal hammock and high pine plant communities where it tolerates dry soil and any light conditions, including dense shade.

As a gymnosperm (or non-flowering plant) coontie does not produce nectar and therefore it is not attractive to bees and other nectar-dependent insects as pollinators. The female strobili (or cones) are pollinated by weevils, like Pharaxonota floridana which uses the pollen as protein-rich food for its larvae.

Coontie is the exclusive larval host plant for the once believed to be extinct Atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala) whose gregarious larvae stay together on one plant until all the leaves are eaten. As an exotic plant, this could be considered insect damage; as a native plant though this just shows that it serves its purpose in the ecosystem, as the insect and the plant have both undergone a coevolution.

Evolutional adaptation of the Coontie to the larvae (and also to fire) is paradoxically also the reason for the near-extinction of the butterfly. The plant stores a large amount of carbohydrate in a lignotuber at the root crown as starch which is then available as an energy source for regrowth once all the leaves are gone and the caterpillars have moved to the next plant. This starch, known as arrowroot, was highly prized and sustainably harvested by indigenous tribes. European colonizers then overharvested the plant to near-extinction in the wild, and with it the Atala butterfly too disappeared, until it was rediscovered in Florida only in the 1970’s.

If you want to learn more about Florida, become a member of the Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach.

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