Rare plant blooms after 20 years

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Florence Dennis examines one of her cycad tropical plants, which has bloomed after more than 20 years in her yard. (Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[12/14/04] Florence Dennis believes she has a rare and valuable cycad in bloom a rare event this far from the plant’s native tropical regions.

“It started out as a ball. I couldn’t figure out what it was,” Dennis said of a cluster of plants in her back yard.

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An avid gardener, Dennis said she bought four small potted plants from a Vicksburg florist she doesn’t remember which one about 20 years ago. She also doesn’t remember what the plant was called.

About three months ago, she noticed the bud in one change into what she described as “dead leaves.”

“Then, after about a month, it started coming back,” Dennis said.

Now, the pink blooms shoot out of the bud and frighten Dennis’ grandchildren.

“I tried to make them touch it. They said, I’m scared of it. It looks like it’s going to eat you,'” Dennis said.

Dennis had a close call just as the plant began to bloom.

“When they came by to put the new gas meters in, I got there just in time,” Dennis said.

Dennis interrupted an employee of Vicksburg Water and Gas as he started to cut down the plant to make way for the new meter.

“I said, You cut that plant and police will be here,'” Dennis said.

She said the employee wasn’t happy about it, but the plant stayed.

Norman Winter, a horticulturist for the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said it’s possible that the tropical plant could be this far north. While he hasn’t seen Dennis’ plant, he has seen several cycads in the Jackson area.

Apart from their beauty, the plants carry a lot of history, Dennis said.

“They’re ancient. They’re almost like prehistoric plants in the plant world. You’re growing a dinosaur there, so to speak,” Winter said.

The plants also command a healthy price. Just days ago, thieves in California took two of the plants, collectively worth $3,500, form a Los Angeles home. Some specimens can command $20,000 or more on the international black market.

“Most of the nurseries, when they start pricing them, they do it by how tall they are,” Winter said.

“The price grows up by how tall they are and how wide they are.”

About 300 species of cycads exist, mostly in tropical or subtropical climates like Africa, Australia and South America. Many species are also endangered.

Winter said Dennis’ plants may have actually been fortified by chilly Vicksburg winters during the last 20 years.

“The cold has a lot to do with duration,” he said. “Oddly enough, age often builds in heartiness to a plant.”