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Cycads are one of the simplest and most forgiving of all plant genera to bonsai. It is possible to turn a cycad of any size or age into a bonsai, although I tend to keep an eye out around the nursery for plants that stand out, e.g. those which have be come multi-headed due to damage or crown rot. Semi-advanced plants which have suffered root rot due to fungus or over watering are also good candidates for bonsai treatment.
The first step is to remove all the old foliage and trim any damaged or decayed roots back to clean tissue. At this stage you should treat the root system with a fungicide, or air dry the cut areas. Select a pot which would appear to be small in proportion to the size of the caudex, or improvise by cutting off an old plastic pot to give the desired "squat" shape and pot with a clean, preferably sterile, potting media. Don't worry about buying an expensive "Bonsai Pot" until you are confident you have a fully established plant, when you will be able to make the perfect selection to suit your specimen.
Zamia furfuraceaHeight: 300mm Started in 1988 with multi-crowned caudex with roots rotted off.
The next step may be approached in a couple of different ways. Firstly, you may simply bonsai the plant by starvation, using a nutrient poor mix and holding back on moisture and fertilizer. In this instance it is not as critical to restrict the roots. Generally speaking, this method is too slow to be very rewarding. The better method is to use a nutrient rich mix, restrict the roots and water regularly. When you notice a new flush of leaves starting to push through, remove some or all the old leaves. This depends on the species you are working on. For example, Cycas spp. normally flush once a year. Zamia spp. tends to get a couple of leaves more often. If at the same time that the leaves need trimming the roots have become too vigorous, reduce them back and slow down the water application at least until the leaves have hardened off. Resume your normal watering and feeding programme until the next year.
There is another source of cycad material for bonsai, and that is those plants which occur as a one in a thousand or more chance which have a mutation or dwarfism. These, of course, are the easiest of all to bonsai.
Zamia furfuraceaHeight: 300mm Started in 1982 with multi-crowned caudex.
Growing cycads in this way can be very rewarding as you can fit quite a few specimens in a confined space or on a unit balcony. Unlike most other bonsai which need to be kept out doors, once the leaves on a cycad have hardened off, you can keep them inside for quite long periods. It is essential, however, that as soon as new growth is noticed they be removed to stronger light so that the leaves don't stretch. Whilst the plants are inside, keep a close eye out for scale and mealy bug and treat them as early as possible.
Cycas revoluta Height: 400mm Width: 200mm Started in 1988 from sucker imported from Japan.
Another positive point I have noticed with bonsai cycads is that if at any time the leaves become damaged, just cut them off and they will usually flush a new set straight away.