|Story by Liza Simon
Photos by Monte Costa
In the beginning, all I know of cycads is that the word sounds vaguely like cyclops: soft “c” followed by hard “c.” It’s an apt association judging from the primordial-looking object that Greg Holzman has just dug out of the back of his truck. “This is the naked ovary of a plant that’s been around since the Jurassic era,” he says, cradling the melon-size cone of a female cycad. He smashes open one of its red kernels, breaking the symmetry of the cone’s Byzantine design to show me seeds. “These,” he proffers, “are the ancestors of all plant seeds on earth.”
But when evolution raced on—creating flowers and the like—“cycads split off and stayed in their own kingdom, with their reproductive biology unchanged for the last one hundred million years,” says Holzman. So a cycad is essentially a survivor from dinosaur days? “Exactly,” he beams. “Finding one of these is like coming across a T. Rex. That excites people. That’s why people have sought them out, named them after kings and queens. That’s why I have ‘CYCADS’ on my license plate.”
He does, too. There it is, right there on the truck. We are in the parking lot of the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kaua‘i’s south shore, where twenty years ago Holzman began the work that has made him the Johnny Appleseed of cycads, cultivating them in Hawai‘i and beyond, hunting down new species in remote destinations and even helping researchers to understand the plant’s neurotoxins.
Holzman is not a botanist, he’ll tell you, just an enthusiast. A huge enthusiast. Not only do cycads have prehistoric roots, he marvels as we stand by the truck, they have unbelievable longevity. “They are revered as a symbol of immortality. The longer they live, the more massive they become, the more positive energy they put out. Like a giant crystal.” He stops to add with a laugh, “I’m sorry if that sounds hokey. But it’s true.”