Adapted from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter of December 4, 2006
issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve,
QUERÉTARO, MÉXICO

THE CYCADS OF SAN ANTONIO

The mountaintop less-than-a-village we were at was called San Antonio, and one of the ideas the local landowners have is to reintroduce Collared Peccaries, a kind of wild hog, into their local woods, then invite hunters to come and pay to shoot them. Collared Peccaries once occupied this area but were all killed off. An old man in a broad, sloppy sombrero and with a broad, sloppy smile, Don Rafa, was among us. He told us he had about 30 peccaries in a pen on his land about ready to be released, and invited us to go see them.

The peccaries were there just like any bunch of hogs in a muddy, sloppy pen but what really caught my attention on that trip was the appearance of hundreds and hundreds of a certain kind of plant growing wild along the muddy road to Don Rafa's rancho. They were Mexican Cycads, DIOON EDULE, and you can see my picture of one about three feet tall below:

Mexican Cycad, DIOON EDULE

Cycads are always wonderful to see, not only because they are such lovely plants but also because they are "living fossils." Here people refer to them as palms, but they are not at all related to palms. They look like ferns but neither are they close to ferns. They are gymnosperms and thus most closely related to plants such as ginkgos and yews, but really their closest relatives went extinct millions of years ago, so now cycads as a group occupy a rather isolated branch of the evolutionary Tree of Life.

Cycads produce fruiting structures looking a little like pine cones, which makes sense since pines are gymnosperms, too. Don Rafa was in the car's back seat as we headed toward his rancho and when he saw the cycads he said:

"Ayyyy, I know some women who make the most marvelous tamales from that plant's fruits. You go to their homes at the right season, you sit and talk with them awhile, you bring the subject around to this plant, and they say, 'Ayyyy, I have some tamales of that fruit right here. You want some?' And then you say, 'Why, yes, I think I might enjoy that.' And then they bring out the hot coffee and you sit and eat that tamale, and, ayyyyyy, nothing is better in this life than that my good man, nothing is like a cycad-fruit tamale and hot coffee... "

The people of San Antonio aren't the only ones who know you can eat this plant's fruits. Note the species name: D. edule, from "edulis," meaning "edible." But Don Rafa would have named it D. deliciosus, I am sure.