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5 Favorites: Prehistoric Plants


5 Favorites: Prehistoric Plants

June 14, 2023

At some point in my gardening career, I learned that there are plant species growing in our gardens today that were around during the days of dinosaurs—or even earlier. These amazingly hardy, resilient, adaptive, and reproductive masters have survived brutal ice ages and devastating mass extinctions. Impressive stuff.

Recently, these ancient plant wonders have witnessed a boom in popularity among plant enthusiasts and nature lovers. And this makes sense because these plants have serious history and street cred. To have one, or many, in your garden creates a unique connection to our planet’s past.

Please keep reading to learn more about these fascinating finds.

Featured photograph (above) of Gunnera tinctoria by Jungle Rebel via Flickr.

Ginkgo Trees

Above: Female Ginkgo trees may produce fruit that stink when fallen on sidewalks, but unbroken ones are odorless—and can be edible. Photograph by Marie Viljoen, from Ginkgo: De-Stinking an Ancient Delicacy.

I love the shape of Ginkgo biloba‘s fan-shaped leaf so much, and even when dried it is striking. This tree is sometimes called a “living fossil” as it is one of the world’s oldest living tree species, dating back to 270 million years. At some point the Ginko almost dipped sadly into extinction in the wild but luckily it was protected in Chinese monasteries. This deciduous tree can grow up to a towering 50 to 80 feet tall and 30 feet wide (some are smaller), and in autumn the leaves turn a brilliant yellow before falling off into a beautifully bright pile under the tree. Plant in sun or part sun in well-draining soil. Be sure to plant a male tree as it won’t produce stinky fruit like the female tree. My favorite: Ginkgo ‘Autumn Gold’.


Above:  Cycas revoluta is also known as Sago palm. Photograph by Forest and Kim Starr via Flickr.

Dating back to 280 million years ago, cycads lived in the Mesozoic Era. With a tropical, palm-like look, their stiff leaves and stout trunk add a bold structure and intrigue to a modern or tropical garden. Be aware that all parts of these plants are poisonous and are quite poky; plus they grow slow like molasses which explains their hefty price tag. Plant in sun or part sun in a fast-draining palm or succulent soil mix. My favorites: Cycas revoluta and Cycad Encephalartos.


The King Protea is South Africa&#8\2\17;s national flower. Photograph by Sergey Yeliseev via Flickr, from Gardening \10\1: King Protea.
Above: The King Protea is South Africa’s national flower. Photograph by Sergey Yeliseev via Flickr, from Gardening 101: King Protea.

This species dates back to 300 million years, when the climate was way different and South Africa was a tropical forest. Proteas are low water, large woody shrubs with thick stems and stiff leaves but most notable for their otherworldly flowers that are prized by florists for lasting a long time (though, sorry, not millions) and for drying exceptionally well. And because this plant family is quite eclectic and diverse, it is named for the Greek god Proteus who could change between many forms. These plants are pollinated by a variety of bats, birds, insects, and tiny mammals, which makes them critical to many ecosystems. Pro tip: Avoid fertilizers containing phosphorous as this will kill the plant. My favorites: King Protea (South Africa’s national flower) and Protea ‘Pink Ice’.

Tree Fern

Above: Tree ferns, hundreds of years old, look otherworldly in this modern garden in London. Photograph by Richard Bryant/Arcaid, from A Secret Courtyard Garden in Piccadilly, Ancient Tree Ferns Included.

If you lived in the Triassic Period, 230 million years ago, you would have probably lounged under tropical tree ferns, sharing them with dinosaurs who feasted on the fronds. Luckily today you can still hang out under a fern without the fear of a massive vegetarian joining you. These stately plants sport lengthy feathery fronds and a furry trunk, and require moist, rich soil and a partly sunny to dappled-shady spot. Tree ferns look lovely in all sorts of gardens: Asian, woodland, modern, and tropical. Pro tip: Water the crown of the tree fern and the trunk to increase needed humidity. My favorites: Cyathea cooperi and Dicksonia Antarctica.


Above: Gunnera towers over an understory of Podophyllum in this Seattle garden. Photograph courtesy of Flora and Henri, from Garden Visit: A Grand Classic from an Earlier Century in Seattle.

If you’ve ever encountered a Gunnera, you’ll always remember its gigantic 4-foot-wide leaves; and if you’ve ever had direct contact, you’ll never forget how razor sharp their leaves are. (Pro tip: always wear heavy leather gloves when pruning.) Ninety-five million years ago this vicious trait may have come in handy repelling hungry dinosaurs—even though its nickname is “dinosaur food.” Native to Argentina and Southern Chile, this gargantuan, clumping plant doesn’t tolerate freezing temperatures but does make a massive statement in a tropical or collector’s garden. This prehistoric plant’s favorite place is in very moist conditions, like situated next to a stream, pond, or other boggy locale and in a sunny to partly sunny spot. A Gunnera can clump to 8 foot wide, so give it plenty of room to spread its spiky but spectacular leaves. My favorite: Gunnera tinctoria.

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Frequently asked questions

What are some favorite prehistoric plants?

Some favorite prehistoric plants include cycads, ferns, horsetails, maidenhair tree, and Ginkgo biloba.

Where can I find these prehistoric plants?

You can find these prehistoric plants in various botanical gardens, plant nurseries specializing in rare plants, and online plant retailers.

Do prehistoric plants require special care?

Most prehistoric plants are low-maintenance and can adapt to a variety of environments. However, certain species like cycads may require specific care such as well-draining soil and protection from frost.

Are prehistoric plants suitable for indoor cultivation?

Yes, many prehistoric plants can thrive indoors as long as they have sufficient light and proper care. Maidenhair tree and Ginkgo biloba, for example, are known to do well as houseplants.

Do prehistoric plants have any unique features?

Yes, prehistoric plants often have unique features such as unusual leaf shapes, primitive reproductive structures, and adaptations to survive harsh conditions like drought or high temperatures.

Are prehistoric plants rare or hard to find?

While some prehistoric plants are considered rare and may be difficult to find, there are nurseries and collectors who specialize in these plants and offer them for sale.

Can I propagate prehistoric plants?

Yes, many prehistoric plants can be propagated through methods like division, spores, offsets, and seeds. However, it's essential to research each specific plant's propagation requirements.

Will prehistoric plants survive in my climate?

Depending on your climate, some prehistoric plants may require specific conditions to thrive. It's best to research the specific plant's preferred climate range and ensure it aligns with your location.

Can prehistoric plants be used in landscaping?

Absolutely! Prehistoric plants can add a unique and striking element to your landscape design. They can be incorporated into gardens, rockeries, or used as focal points or specimens.

Are prehistoric plants toxic to pets or humans?

While some prehistoric plants may have toxic compounds, not all of them are dangerous. It's essential to research the toxicity of each plant species individually and take appropriate precautions if necessary.

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