Encephalartos woodii is a cycad famous for being extinct
in nature, and for the fact that there is no known female specimen
Only one clump of male plants has ever been found. John Medley
Wood (1827-1915) found this clump of four plants in 1895 on a steep
south-facing slope on the fringes of the Ngoye forest about 30 km
from Mtunzini in KwaZulu-Natal. Medley Wood was a merchant sailor,
farmer, trader, sportsman and botanist. He founded the Natal Herbarium
and was Curator of the Durban Botanic Gardens. In 1903, Wood sent
his deputy James Wylie to fetch some of the smaller offsets and
three of them were grown in the Durban Botanic Gardens. In a 1907
expedition, Wylie collected two of the larger trunks, both of which
are still to be seen on the Old Conservatory terrace in Durban Botanic
Gardens. In 1907 Wylie noted that the largest of the four trunks
was badly mutilated did not expect it to survive. He was right,
by 1912 there was only one 3m tall trunk left in the wild, and in
1916, the Forestry Department, concerned about the survival of the
remaining stem, arranged to have it removed and sent to the Government
Botanist in Pretoria. It is thought that this trunk subsequently
died in 1964.
Despite numerous excursions in the Ngoye-Mtunzini area, no other
specimens of Encephalartos woodii have ever been found. However,
this area has not been completely and systematically surveyed so
there is still hope that there is another specimen lurking in the
depths of the forest.
Encephalartos woodii is a very handsome plant. The leaves
are a dark glossy green, 2 to 2,5 m to 3 m long, with a gracefully
arching shape, giving this cycad a dense umbrella-shaped crown,
even in young specimens. The Kirstenbosch specimen is unbranched,
but mature specimens are often branched at the crown. Encephalartos
woodii reaches majestic proportions, up to 6m in height with
a trunk diameter of up to 90 cm at the base, 60 cm nearer the crown.
The 100+ year old specimens at Durban Botanic Gardens trunk circumference
exceeds 2 m and has an estimated mass of 2,5 tons. A characteristic
that is unique to Encephalartos woodii is that in mature
specimens the trunk broadens towards the base forming a kind of
buttress in order to support the weight of the trunk. Furthermore,
towards the base of the trunk the leaf bases are so compressed by
the weight it supports that the trunk is unusually smooth. At Kirstenbosch
the base of the trunk is obscured by a cage that surrounds plant,
put there some years ago to prevent suckers from being stolen again.
The cage has itself since been screened by Plumbago auriculata.
Encephalartos woodii produces six to eight
bright orange-yellow cones. These are large, cylindrical in shape,
40 - 90 cm long, occasionally reaching a length of 1,2 m, with a
diameter of 15 - 20 cm. Cones are formed on the Kirstenbosch specimen
every 2-3 years, and the pollen has been used to create hybrids
with a number of species in our collection.
Encephalartos woodii is very well represented in botanic
gardens and cycad collections throughout the world, possibly as
many as 500 specimens exist, all of them derived from basal suckers
or offsets from the original plants discovered by John Medley Wood.
The Kirstenbosch specimen was acquired in 1916, also a sucker from
one of the Durban Botanic Garden plants, sent to us by James Wylie.
Encephalartos woodii is considered to be most closely related
to Encephalartos natalensis. Some authorities regard it as
a relic from a species now extinct, others as a mutation within
Encephalartos natalensis or a robust form of this species.
Still others regard it as a natural hybrid between Encephalartos
natalensis and Encephalartos ferox.
The name Encephalartos is derived from the Greek en meaning
within, kephali meaning head, and artos meaning bread.
Thunberg and other early travellers recorded that the local tribes
used cycad trunks as a source of food. They removed the starchy
pith, tied it in an animal skin, fermented it and then ground it
into a meal. The young leaves of all species of Encephalartos
are grazed by sheep, buck, dassies and baboons. Encephalartos
seeds however are extremely toxic, not the fleshy pulp that is eaten
by birds, baboons, monkeys, rodents and bats, but the hardcoated
Growing Encephalartos woodii
Encephalartos woodii is possibly the most sought-after cycad
in the world. It is fortunate that it is the fastest growing species
of Encephalartos and one of the most vigorous in cultivation.
It produces numerous suckers, and new leaves are formed every year.
For optimum growth, Encephalartos woodii requires fertile
well-drained soil and ample water. It can withstand relatively long
dry spells but plants that receive regular water are healthier and
have larger leaves. During summer give sufficient water to soak
the root area once a week. Watering can be suspended during winter.
Remember that good drainage is crucial. In hot dry regions inland,
the sun tends to burn the leaves and they are better planted in
light shade. A mulch of well-rotted compost applied at least once
a year around the base of the plant, plus application of a balanced
fertiliser twice a year during summer (1 kg to each mature plant)
will keep the plant in good condition and maintain growth.
Encephalartos woodii makes a good container plant when small,
but will have to be planted out when it becomes too large. All our
cycads make ideal outdoor container plants, but remember to position
them where the sharp leaf spines will not do damage to passing human
traffic. Use a well-drained soil mix e.g. 6 parts coarse sand :
8 parts milled bark : 6 parts friable loam, add dolomitic lime,
iron sulphate and a slow release inorganic fertiliser. Encephalartos
woodii, being fast-growing, will quickly fill the container
up with its roots, and if not repotted, may burst the pot with its
expanding roots. Cycads in containers require watering every other
day during summer, particularly during hot and windy weather, and
must never be allowed to dry out completely. It is important that
the growing medium be kept moist, but the excess water must be allowed
to drain away to prevent rotting.
Propagation is by offsets and suckers. Encephalartos woodii
does not go completely dormant, but growth does slow down during
winter. Suckers are best removed in early spring, with a clean sharp
spade or a knife. They should be larger than 100 mm in diameter,
the larger the sucker the better its chance of survival away from
its parent. Treat all cut surfaces, on the parent and the sucker,
with flowers of sulphur to prevent fungal infection. Store the sucker
in a cool dry place for about three weeks to allow the wound to
seal. Before planting, dust the wound with a rooting hormone to
stimulate the development of roots. Keep moist and in light shade
until it produces new leaves, whereafter a weekly feed with a balanced
liquid fertiliser during summer is recommended.
There being no female plant, seed is out of the question, but there
are a few projects underway to remedy the situation. There is still
the hope that a female plant is in the Ngoye forest somewhere and
expeditions in that area always keep a look out for one. The most
promising project is the crossing of Encephalartos woodii with
its closest relative Encephalartos natalensis, and crossing
the offspring with Encephalartos woodii again with the result
that each successive generation is more and more Encephalartos
woodii. There is also the remote possibility that a spontaneous
sex change will occur in one of the male plants. Sex reversal has
been observed in a few cases involving other species and once the
process is more fully understood, it could be induced in an Encephalartos
Legislation affecting Encephalartos woodii
Encephalartos woodii is protected by both national and international
On a NATIONAL level, this legislation differs from province to
province and is policed by the Nature Conservation authority. In
the Western Cape (and probably the Eastern and Northern Cape who
were all part of the same province in 1974 when the ordinance was
passed) Encephalartos woodii and all other species and hybrids,
are listed on Schedule 3 (Endangered Flora) and one requires a permit
from Nature Conservation to move, sell, buy, donate, receive, cultivate
and sell Endangered Flora and to own adult cycads. When buying endangered
flora, make sure that the seller is registered with Nature Conservation
and that they issue an Invoice. For more information, please contact
the Western Cape Nature Conservation Board, Private Bag X9086, CAPE
TOWN, 8000, telephone (021) 483 3539 / 483 3170, fax (021) 483 4158,
or your provincial authority.
On an INTERNATIONAL level all species and hybrids of Encephalartos
are on Appendix I of CITES, the Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This means
that wild collected material may not be traded and for each and
every artificially cultivated Encephalartos plant or piece
of a plant or a cone or pollen or seed, being carried over an international
border requires a CITES Export Permit issued by the authority of
the exporting country, and a CITES Import Permit issued by the authority
of the importing country. Buyers are advised to make sure that the
seller is a reputable, registered dealer and that an invoice is
issued with the sale. For more info on CITES, please visit their
- they give a great deal of info. including a list of national authorities
of all member countries, or speak to your local authority.
Finally, please note that the above legislation has nothing whatsoever
to do with plant health and cleanliness legislation that is applicable
to the import/export of all plant material and which is usually
under the jurisdiction of the Dept./Ministry of Agriculture.
Legislation relating to growing /owning cycads in South Africa
- Giddy, Cynthia.,1984, Cycads of South Africa, Second Revised
Edition, C.Struik Publishers, Cape Town
- Osborne, Roy et al., 1993, The Cycad Collection, Durban Botanic
Gardens, Parks Dept., City of Durban
- Osborne, Roy, 1986, Encephalartos woodii, Encephalartos (5): 4-10
- Donaldson, John & Winter, John, 1998, Grow Cycads, Kirstenbosch
Gardening Series, NBI, Cape Town.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden