Cycads are often referred to as "living fossils" and
have changed little since the Carboniferous period 50-60 million
years ago. Cycads are often confused with both palms and tree ferns
because of a superficial resemblance - however they are actually
totally unrelated. In fact, the word "cycad" is even derived
from the Greek word "cyckos" meaning "palm-like".
Cycads belong to the group of plants called Gymnosperms (meaning
"naked seeds"). The reproductive organs are produced in
cones (and not in flowers as in higher plants). The seeds are not
enclosed in an ovary and no stigma or style is present. South African
gymnosperms consist of the cycads (Encephalartos, Stangeria),
the yellowwood trees (Podocarpus), the cedars (Widdringtonia)
and the well-known unusual desert plant Welwitschia.
The name Encephalartos is derived from the Greek "en"
meaning within; "kephali" meaning head and "artos"
meaning bread. Ferox comes from Latin for "fierce"
/ "ferocious" in reference to the rigid, spiny leaflets.
The Zululand cycad (Encephalartos ferox) is a striking plant
occurring in the coastal bush from northern KwaZulu Natal extending
from Sodwana Bay to Kosi Bay and then further north along the Mozambique
coastline to Vilanculos. It was first described in 1851 by Bertolini
It is commonly found in the shade in dune forest margins and in
wooded grassland where it may occur in large numbers. This species
is locally abundant in dune scrub - sometimes occurring within 50m
of the beach. Rainfall in this area varies from 1000 -1250mm per
annum and no frost occurs. Fire is an important element in this
plants habitat and may cause some damage to the stems and leaves.
However this is usually superficial and the plant recovers quickly
- resprouting from its largely underground stem.
The plants are usually single-stemmed or rarely branched with new
suckers being produced from the base. The stems are subterranean
(although very occasionally stems may be found reaching over a metre
in length). The stems reach up to 35cm across.
The arching leaves are 1-2m long and bear numerous dark green,
holly-like leaflets (15cm long and 3-5cm wide) with distinctly lobed
teeth on both the upper and lower margin. The leaflets are moderately
spaced at the base of the leaf, but are crowded and overlapping
along the length of the leaf. Young leaves are often coppery brown
and covered with fine hairs which are soon lost.
most spectacular part of these plants are their striking orange-red
to scarlet cones which contrast with the attractive dark green foliage.
Occasionally golden yellow cones may be found. The male and female
cones are borne on separate plants and while both colourful, are
quite different from each other otherwise. The female plants bear
1-5 ovoid cones, each 25-50 cm tall and 20-40cm in diameter. The
female cones are sessile on the plant (i.e. they have no stem).
The male plants however bear 1-6 cylindrical cones per crown. These
are longer (40-50cm) and much narrower (only 8-10cm in diameter).
The male cones are held on short stems up to 3cm long.
The flesh-covered seeds are up to 5cm long and are a glossy bright
orange to red in colour. They are relished by many animals (baboons,
vervet monkeys, dassies, fruit-eating bats) and birds (a particular
favourite of the Trumpeter and Crowned Hornbills). They are attracted
by the brightly coloured fleshy covering of the seed and are important
agents of seed dispersal, spitting out the poisonous kernels once
they have eaten the fleshy covering. The baboons and monkeys will
often remove the entire cone (or parts of it) and carry it some
distance away before eating the seeds.
The Afrikaans name for cycads ("broodboom") means "bread
tree" and the stems of these plants have been used in the past
as a source of food. The starchy pith is removed, tied up in an
animal skin, fermented and then ground into a meal.
Growing Encephalartos ferox
The Encephalartos ferox is popular in gardens and in the
horticultural trade and is one of the more commonly available cycad
species available in nurseries. It grows best in partial shade and
require plenty of water. It is not tolerant of very severe frost.
This species may be propagated from seeds or by the removal of
offsets or suckers.
order for pollination to occur, it is essential to have both male
and female plants in cone at the same time. Although pollination
does occur naturally in the wild where populations are larger, pollination
must be done artificially in a garden environment. The pollen needs
to be collected from the male plants and may be stored in a freezer
for many months. When the female cones are ready to receive pollen
the cone scales open ever so slightly. Hand pollination can then
be done by washing the pollen mixed with distilled water into the
Although seeds will always be produced by female cones, they will
only be viable and germinate if they have been successfully pollinated.
To determine if the seeds are fertile - remove the fleshy covering
by soaking them in water for 2-3 days and then rubbing it off. Then
put seeds in a bucket filled with water
the heavier fertile
seeds will sink to the bottom and the infertile seeds will float
The embryo develops in the seed immediately following fertilisation
but it will take 6-7 months until it is ready to germinate. During
this time, the cleaned seeds may be stored in a dry cupboard. Once
the seed germinates, a tuberous tap root is immediately formed and
once established, the first leaf will emerge. This is ±6
weeks after the emergence of the root.
Cycads are popular as collectors items and a number of species
are highly threatened in their natural habitat due to overcollection.
For this reason, all cycad species are protected by law and the
trade in them is subject to approval by Nature Conservation. International
trade in cycads is strictly controlled through the CITES legislation.
This particular species of cycad, Encephalartos ferox, is
still a relatively common species despite collection - however the
KwaZulu Natal Nature Conservation Services consider it to be dependent
on protection in nature reserves in the province.
Legislation relating to growing cycads in South Africa
- Donaldson, J. & Winter, J. 1998. Grow Cycads. Kirstenbosch
Gardening Series. NBI : Cape Town.
- Giddy, C. 1974. Cycads of South Africa. Purnell : Johannesburg
- Goode, D. 1989. Cycads of Africa. Struik Winchester : Cape Town.
- Pooley, E. 1993. Trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal
Flora Publications Trust : Durban
- Jones, D.L. 1993. Cycads of the World. Reed Books : Australia
- Scott-Shaw, R. 1999. Rare and Threatened Plants of KwaZulu Natal
and neighbouring regions.
- waZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service : Pietermaritzburg
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden