Gardening with South African Plants

Cycads: Gardening with “living fossils”

Cycads in the Natal Botanical Garden

Long before mankind started gardening, nature was already growing gardens of its own. Evolving gardens: from the most primitive fungal and algal “blooms”, to prehistoric fern and conifer gardens, to modern-day flowering plants and trees. Each of nature’s “gardening periods” was characterized by unique plant and animal species.

By growing these ancient plants, even today we can create a garden reminiscent of a time when dinosaurs ruled the animal kingdom and the dominant plant types ruling the plant kingdom were cycads and ferns.

About cycads

Cycads are often referred to as “living fossils” because they date back to the age of dinosaurs of which only fossils remain today. Some scientists believe cycads date back as far as 250 million years, but reached dominance about 150 million years ago - widely known as the age of dinosaurs. During this period they were a prominent component of the earth’s vegetation and a very important part of most herbivores’ diets.

Cycads are grouped with gymnosperms (cone bearing plants like pine trees), as their seeds are arranged in a cone. They belong to the order Cycadales and are, according to scientists, the most primitive of living gymnosperms. This places them amongst the most ancient off all living plants surviving today.

Cycads are arranged into numerous families and genera. Most southern African cycads belong to the genus Encephalartos in the family Zamiaceae. This is said to be the second largest genus of cycads and consists, to date, of about 63 living species. They are all endemic to the continent of Africa.

A cycad garden

Growing a “prehistoric” cycad garden is not for all gardeners. Cycads are slow growers and therefore need time and patience to grow. They can prove difficult in some instances and may require a little more effort to grow successfully, but they are well worth the time and effort spent on them.

Cycads do best in areas with a moderate climate. Certain species however prefer tropical to subtropical areas and there are a few that are able to survive in cold, dry areas. Extreme climates with prolonged periods of intense heat or cold are not suitable, unless the cycads are in greenhouses where the conditions are controlled.

The basic requirements to grow cycads are: unimpeded soil drainage, good soil, warmth and plenty of water. Your pH should be neutral to slightly alkaline, not acidic. They are sun loving, although some forest species requires some shade.

For more information about individual cycads and their requirements see our Cycad Chart. Some of the easier species to grow have featured in our “Plants of the week” series. See Encephalartos species for detailed descriptions of these. You might also like to buy the Grow Cycads booklet from the Kirstenbosch gardening series. Please check our the Gardening and Greening section of the Publications pages to see price and availability.

Before you start on your cycad garden there is one very important thing to remember: Cycads are highly endangered and may not be removed or transported from their habitat without the proper permits from local and international authorities. Therefore it is very important that you only buy these plants from established and highly reputable dealers.

These prehistoric plants will lend an ageless and mysterious aura to your garden. Their rarity, coupled with their distinctive and impressive appearance, will ensure the admiration of all visitors. Cycads can also be combined with ferns and tree ferns, which also date back as far as the age of dinosaurs, to enhance the prehistoric theme of your garden.

If you have a large garden and would like to continue a “Gardening through the Ages” theme, you could also have an area devoted to the cone bearing plants such as yellowwoods, and one devoted to the more modern flowering plants; the trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials which make up the largest section of our garden plants today.

Lou-Nita Le Roux
Lowveld National Botanical Garden

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