What is Macrozamia?

Alex Tree

The genus Macrozamia belongs to the family Zamiaceae and contains 38 to 40 cycad plant species. Cycads are dioecious, evergreen seed plants that are characterized by their large compound leaves and stout trunks. All species in this genus have dark green fronds that sprout from a central trunk. These plants do not produce flowers, and they are endemic to Australia. The term Macrozamia is derived from the Greek word macros, meaning large, and the plant genus Zamia.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

Burrawang is a term that can be used to refer to the entire genus of plants, though it originally referred specifically to Macrozamia communis. M. communis is commonly found on the east coast of New South Wales, Australia, and thrives in open forests. This species produces seeds with toxic compounds, which are capable of killing both livestock and humans. The plant is extremely slow-growing, taking up to five years to reach medium size and at least 10 years to produce cones.

Macrozamia reproduces only by way of cones, which means the plants cannot reproduce until they are at least one decade old. Male cones are grey-brown in color, while female ones are often much lighter. Female cones are also slightly bigger than male ones, often resembling a small but fat barrel. When a female cone is ripe, it cracks open to release bright red seeds. Though plants of this genus are slow to reproduce, none are considered endangered as of 2010.

All plants in this genus thrive in full sun, and some species suffer when placed in the slightest shade. They can tolerate mild frosts and freezes, though most species do not respond well to frequent snowfall. In cultivation, the plants of the Macrozamia genus may have problems with mealybugs, especially species that grow closely spaced leaves that hinder air circulation and sun exposure. Some species, such as Macrozamia fraseri and Macrozamia longispina, can be very difficult to find in cultivation. Commonly cultivated species like M. communis are generally considered more attractive and easier to grow than rarer species.

Aborigines, the original inhabitants of Australia, ate the seeds of these plants after rendering them harmless to humans. One treatment they used to remove the poison was to thoroughly cook the seed, break it up, and then let it soak for up to three weeks under running water. In some parts of the country, only the outer parts of the seed were eaten after a less laborious treatment process.

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