Encephalartos altensteinii


Family :
Common names :
Eastern Cape giant cycad, bread tree

Female cones of E. altensteinii

Encephalartos altensteinii is a very ornamental garden plant and probably the most common of all the cycads in cultivation. This species is long-lived, is easy to grow and in time develops into large specimens. The species varies somewhat and is closely related to E. natalensis and E. lebomboensis.

Stem with base suckerThe bread tree cycad developes into a medium to large plant producing initially a single, erect trunk. Some plants will produce suckers at the base of the trunk which in time develop to a height of 4-5 m with a stem diameter of 0.35-0.4 m. Cycads are evergreen, the young leaves are light green and grown in the shade will develop to a length of 2-3 m. In full sun the leaves are shorter. A flush of new leaves is produced in the spring but not necessarily every year.

All cycads are long-lived, and to reproduce, male and female plants need to produce cones at the same time, so that pollen can be transferred to the female cone. They are insect and wind pollinated. The genus Encephalartos has been placed on the list of threatened species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) and is listed in appendix 1. This prohibits the export of any specimen without the relevant export permit from the country of origin as well as an import permit from the country of destination.

E. altensteinii is widely distributed in the coastal bush from the Bushman`s River in the southeastern Cape to the southern border of Kwazulu-Natal It also occurs inland at Komga, Kei Road and King William's Town on rocky hillsides and exposed escarpments. Summer conditions are warm to hot and cool in the winter with rarely any frost occurring. E. altensteinii responds well to cultivation and can be grown in full sun or light shade. This species tolerates light frost. In its natural habitat, this species enjoys rainfall ranging from 800 to 1000 mm, indicating that regular summer watering will be beneficial.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
Named after Baron von Stein zum Altenstein, a statesman at the court of King Fredrick William 3 rd of Prussia, by Lehmann in 1834. This is probably one of the most common of all Encephalartos species in cultivation, of the approximate 65 species in the genus which occur in Africa.

E. altensteinii, like all other species in the genus, is pollinated by insects and wind. The Knysna loerie and Trumpeter hornbill are attracted to the disintegrating cones which expose the bright red seeds which are consumed by the birds. The fleshy layer is digested, the hard seed regurgitated, and in this way it is dispersed.

Uses and cultural aspects
Carl Thunberg, a well known early traveller in South Africa, collected the first cycad which is known today as E. longifolius. Cycads were known as the bread tree, as the local natives (Hottentots) would remove the pith from the stem, bury it in the earth to rot, then knead it, make it into a cake and bake it in the embers of a fire. The greatest use of E. altensteinii today is in horticulture where it is used extensively in gardens and as a container plant when young. It is very ornamental.

E.alteninsteinii at Kirstenbosch

Growing Encephalartos altensteinii

This species is well known as it is easy to grow and adapts to most conditions provided it has a well-drained growing medium and is not subject to severe frost. Adapts well to full sun or light shade. Because of the eventual size, E. altensteinii is best suited to large gardens where it can be displayed as a feature plant. When young they can be grown as container plants. This species transplants easily as a mature plant although it is recommended to remove all of the leaves before doing so, as this makes handling a great deal easier and most important of all, the plant will recover sooner as less moisture is lost. Good drainage, regular watering and feeding in early summer will help to maintain a healthy plant. Irrigation systems can be detrimental to cycads, damaging the leaves and stems from the pressure of the water as well as over-watering.

Legislation relating to growing cycads in South Africa

References and further reading
  • Giddy, C. 1974. Cycads of South Africa.Struik, Cape Town.
  • Goode, D. 1989. Cycads of Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Goode, D. 2001. Cycads of Africa. D& E Cycads of Africa, Gallo Manor.
  • Jones, D.I. 1993. Cycads of the World. National Library of Australia, Sydney.


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This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website www.plantzafrica.com.