Coontie (Zamia integrifolia or Zamia pumila), also known as Florida arrowroot, is a plant native to the Southeastern United States and much of the Caribbean. 'Coontie' comes from the Miccosukee word konti hateka, which means something like 'flour root'. It is a cycad, superficially resembling a saw palmetto, but instead of the leaflets branching off radially from the same point on a common stem, they run along the stem, each leaflet branching off on opposite sides. It prefers partial shade and well-drained soils, and does well in the sandy loam of central Florida. Since much of the plant actually lives underground, it can weather freezes well, being found as far north as Zone 8b (Austin, Texas and Gainesville, Florida), where winter lows can dip down into the 20s (that's -7 Celsius for the Rightpondians)

The underground tuber is starchy, and when raw, it contains more than a dozen poisonous compounds that cause vomiting and diarrhea when consumed. However, the Seminole used the tuber to make flour, after soaking it for several days, fermenting it, and letting it sun-dry to get rid of these compounds. The flour was baked into a loaf that the European settlers of Florida called 'Seminole bread'. Since grain crops like wheat and rye do not grow well in Florida, the earlier European inhabitants of the peninsula used coontie to make bread; in fact, there were a few factories in South Florida that made arrowroot biscuits until the early 20th century. You can find arrowroot biscuits in many health food stores, but the arrowroot referred to is not Zamia integrifolia, but rather, Maranta arundinaceae, found in such far-flung places as the West Indies, Oceania, and southeast Africa. That plant was widely distributed by the British imperial expansion, and was used as a digestive wherever the British went.

Potential for coontie as a food source is limited by the slow growth of the plant and the need for extensive processing before it becomes edible. Due to extensive land misuse, Zamia integrifolia is considered extinct in Puerto Rico and much of the rest of the Caribbean, found in places in central Cuba and through much of south and central Florida.

Coon"tie (?), n. Bot.

A cycadaceous plant of Florida and the West Indies, the Zamia integrifolia, from the stems of which a kind of sago is prepared.

 

© Webster 1913.

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