Encephalartos latifrons is extremely rare and virtually extinct in its natural habitat. It is very attractive with the broadest leaves of all the cycad species.
Encephalartos latifrons develops stems up to 3 m in height and 300-450 mm in diameter. Stems can be single but are usually branched at the base, developing a number of stems as well as suckers. Mature leaves are glossy, dark green, hard and rigid. Young leaves are covered with fine hairs which disappear with age. A striking feature of E. latifrons is the 'skirt' of the brown, dead leaves which form a very distinct appearance at the base of the dark green leaves. The leaf stalk is 1 to 1.5 m in length with the top half curved or entirely curled back.
Encephalartos is a dioecious plant which means that the male and female elements occur on different plants. One to three olive green cones can be produced. The cones are borne on short, stout stalks. The male cone is cylindrical in shape and the female cone is barrel-shaped. The seeds are red. E. latifrons produces cones in midsummer, and does not necessarily cone every year. Plants in the living collection of E. latifrons at Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden have over the last 25 years produced between one and seven conings per plant and between 8-14 flushes of new leaves, which illustrates how slowly this species grows.
Encephalartos latifrons used to occur in scattered groups in the Eastern Cape Province. The plants occurred on rocky outcrops and hills amongst scrub vegetation. No frost is experienced in their natural habitat. Summers are hot and fairly dry. Today very few of these populations remain as they have been removed by unscrupulous collectors.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
This species was described in 1837-1838 by Lehmann. The specific name latifrons refers to the leaves and their width. Encephalartos latifrons is one of the rarest cycads and has probably never been abundant in the last 150 years. In 1916, Prof. H.H.W. Pearson, the first director of Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden, wrote: 'This species appears to be on the verge of extinction. It is only known to occur in two localities, in which the plants are now very hard to find'. Scattered plants do occur in the habitat but male and female plants are so far apart that seed production is non-existent.
Little is known about the pollination of Encephalartos latifrons as it is so rare. However it is presumed it could possibly be wind and insect pollinated.
Uses and cultural aspects
Encephalartos latifrons develops into a fine specimen in 15 years from seed and is ideal as a container plant. Large plants with a 1 m stem and larger make fine specimens in the garden. The living collection of E. latifrons at Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden fulfils a role of display and education and is used to promote the conservation of the species by producing seedlings and making them available to botanic gardens and cycad enthusiasts.
Growing Encephalartos latifrons
Although Encephalartos latifrons is slow growing, this species does well in cultivation provided that it is well drained, enjoys full sun and a cool winter without frost- it does not do well in subtropical climates. In its natural habitat, E. latifrons is subject to hot, dry summers and cool, frost-free winters. The high humidity and warmer winters in subtropical regions are probably not suited to this species. Large specimens make excellent accent plants surrounded by lower growing species such as E. horridus with the grey leaves contrasting well with the dark green leaves of E. latifrons. High pressure irrigation systems which produce a strong jet of water are to be avoided as they are fatal for all species of cycad. The strong jet of water will destroy the leaves as well as the stem of the plant. Cycads require regular feeding to maintain a healthy plant. A 50 mm thick mulch of well-matured compost applied in the autumn helps to improve the soil and benefits the cycads. In the early spring apply a mixture of bone meal, organic fertilizer and a balanced inorganic fertilizer to each plant. Young plants make ideal container plants. Good, sharp drainage is essential with regular watering plus annual feeding which will keep the plant healthy.
Scale and mealybugs which are found on the underside of the leaves, could be a problem. Spray with a systemic insecticide. Mature plants when coning could attract snout beetles which destroy the seed. A contact insecticide needs to be applied to eliminate them. As new leaves appear they can be damaged by a tiny mite. A contact insecticide needs to be applied regularly every two weeks when the new leaves start appearing.
Propagation can be achieved by sowing the seed which has been produced by hand pollinating the female cone with pollen harvested from a male cone. Germination is poor with less than 10 percent of seed germinating. The seed is sown in spring on a bed of clean sand which has bottom heat of between 25-28°C. Within two months the seed germinates, first producing a radicle followed by the leaves. By the following spring the seedlings are large enough to be planted and into a 3 litre plastic sleeve. A well-drained growing medium is essential. Until established, the young seedling must be watered sparingly.
The other method of propagation is by removing well-developed suckers approximately 250 mm in diameter from the parent plant. Remove all the leaves before carefully pulling them away from the main stem. The sucker should be left to dry off the wound before planting in clean sand to encourage rooting. Once well rooted, the sucker can be planted out into the open ground.
Legislation relating to growing /owning cycads in South Africa
References and further reading
- Giddy, C. 1978. Cycads of South Africa. Purnell, Cape Town.
- Goode, D. 1989. Cycads of Africa. Struik Winchester, Cape Town.
- Kemp, M. 1986. Encephalartos latifrons. Journal of the Cycad Society of Southern Africa 8:8-15.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden