The Sago palm, or Cycad (Cycas revoluta), was a naturally occurring plant in the United Kingdom 60 million years ago. However, on Cycads grown outdoors, botanists have produced both male and female cones for the first time. These plants are native to Japan and grow best in warm temperate and subtropical climates. Why then are they reappearing in the UK at this time? Climate changes.
In 2012, botanists at the Isle of Wight's Ventnor Botanic Gardens produced the first male cone outside. However, the appearance of a female cone only a year ago allowed them to transfer pollen and produce seeds for the first time in millions of years. The Isle of Wight's microclimate—which makes it several degrees higher than the rest of the UK—is the ideal setting for these prehistoric plants. However, the fact that they can survive outside is a sign that the climate is changing.
“Fifteen, 20 years ago we started growing cycads—it started as an experiment, something you wouldn't normally do,” says Ventnor Botanic Garden curator Chris Kidd. “Fifteen years on, they're not only surviving winters, growing and producing leaves. Five years ago we had a male cycad that produced a cone, and this year we have a male and female both producing cones. The direction of travel with climate change is very profound. We're getting plants that you wouldn't normally get to grow outdoors growing outdoors, cycads producing cones, which is quite extraordinary.”
The heatwaves that have been occurring in Europe over the past few years have undoubtedly benefited the cycad. In fact, Kidd said that the rising temperatures have allowed the botanic gardens to plant a variety of exotic flora. The botanists note that although this is fascinating and exciting news, it is also important to consider the bigger picture. These temperature swings can be disastrous for other kinds of plants and crops.