E. ferox is not usually regarded as having much of an exposed trunk, although it is certainly possible to find specimens in the wild with stems of up to 2m above ground level. Branching of the trunk is uncommon and usually occurs only when the growing apex becomes physically damaged. In mature plants the trunk reaches 25cm to 35cm in diameter.
Leaves of this species are 1m to 2m long and usually straight, although sometimes a slight kink in the rachis is seen.
The dark green pinnae, somewhat holly-like in appearance, occur as more or less opposite pairs, set along the rachis to make a slight V-angle and diminish in size to a series of prickles toward the leaf base. Median leaflets are typically flat or only slightly ruffled, 15cm long and up to 5cm broad. In some plants the leaflet margins are quite markedly rolled under to give a tubular appearance. An extreme of this leaflet type is seen in some of the specimens at Fairchild Tropical Garden, which are said to be derived from Natal seed. The leaflets have 2 to 4 small teeth on each margin and 3 to 5 spiny lobes at the apex.
E. ferox usually bears 1-3 cones but on older specimens as many as 5 or 10 cones are borne by female or male plants respectively. The cones are usually a brilliant scarlet colour, occasionally tending to pink shades and golden-yellow cones have been seen in plants in the Sileze area and from certain Mozambique localities. Male cones are subcylindric, 40cm to 50cm long and 7cm to 10cm in diameter. Female cones are more ovoid, 25cm to 50cm long and 20cm to 40cm in diameter. Cone scales are somewhat wrinkled and end in a pronounced beak. Each female cone bears about 500 seeds which have a bright red outer skin (sarcotesta) and are typically 4.5cm to 5cm long and 1.5cm to 2cm in diameter.
Distribution & Habitat
The natural habitat of E. ferox comprises a fairly narrow strip of coastal scrub extending from Sodwana Bay on the Zululand coast up to a point about 650 km north of Maputo in Mozambique. It is fairly well established throughout this area and although the species is not officially listed as endangered, rare or threatened, numbers have been reduced due to encroachment of habitation in Mozambique, afforestation activities in Zululand and the activities of unscrupulous collectors. In Maputaland (previously Tongaland) the main four localities are south of Kosi Bay, the shores near Lake Sibaya, the Sileze area and the Tembe elephant park. In the coastal zones it is often found associated with the wild banana, Strelitzia nicolai, while further inland it occurs in wooded scrub. Apart from its occurrence on the African mainland, the species is also found on Innaca Island, about 35 km east of Maputo.
The habitat experience typically hot and humid tropical weather with an annual rainfall, mostly falling in summer, of 1000mm to 1250mm. In certain of the grassland areas there are cyclical fires at about a four year frequency to which the species seems well adapted. Its occurrence on stabilised sand dunes is a character, which E. ferox shares with E. arenarius in the Eastern Cape. However, plants of E. ferox do not grow right down to the shore itself, the latter quality amongst cycads apparently being confined to E. hildebrandtii in East Africa. The furthest inland occurrence of E. ferox is that of a solitary specimen found by Natal Parks Board officer, I. Steytler, in 1964 on the Makatini Flats about 40 km inland from Sodwana Bay. This does seem to be somewhat outside the usual narrow coastal range and Cynthia Giddy speculated that its presence might have arisen from transport of a seed by the Trumpeter Hornbill which is common in the area and has been observed swallowing whole cycad seed, later to regurgitate the kernel.
Cultivation & Propagation
E. ferox grows well in frost-free areas and enjoys plenty of heat and water, consistent with its conditions in habitat. One of the fastest growing of all cycads, it can cone within 12 years from the time of seed germination. Plants prefer shady conditions with well-drained soil and respond positively to both inorganic and organic fertiliser applications. Whilst this species will serve well as a container plant, it is used to best advantage as a landscaping feature plant where its luxuriant foliage contributes dramatically to a tropical impression. Groupings of several plants compound this effect and of course increase the possibility of eventual seed production.
An Italian plant collector, Cavaliere Carlo Antonio Fornasini, is generally credited with the "discovery" of E. ferox. Fornasini botanised in and around the Inhambane area in Mozambique from 1839 onwards and kept up a continuous flow of specimens to his countryman, Professor Giuseppe Bertolini, who worked in the northern Italian city of Bologna. Bertolini, himself the son of a well-known botanist, drew and described many of Fornasini's specimens in a series of dissertations entitled "Illustrazione di Piante Mozambicesi", which was published in a local scientific journal. Memorie della Accademia delle Scienze dell Istituto di Bologna". Amongst the specimens sent by Fornasini were two large cycad leaves from a quite beautiful ("una bella pianta"), but not very common plant which had stems "as thick as a human torso" and bore amongst its leaves "several fruits similar to a pineapple ...... but not very good to eat". Fornasini also remarked that the natives extracted a type of starch from the stems. Thus on 27 March 1851 Bertolini published a two-page report on this cycad which he named Encephalartos ferox.
In July 1920 two young botanists, Robert Aitkin, newly-appointed lecturer at Natal University College, and postgraduate student George Gale, set out on a arduous trip to the Pondoland (now Maputaland) in northern Natal. From their subsequent report ...."the means of transport was the only one possible in a country unoccupied by white settlers, viz. a wagon and a span of sixteen donkeys. Progress by this means is extremely slow .... it will scarcely be surprising that a day's journey rarely exceeds twelve miles." But their efforts were well rewarded when they came across a stand of cycads where (in what seems to be a somewhat exaggerated report)....."The tallest plant seen was 11 ft. in height and about 3ft. 6ins. in girth. Plants of 6 to 9 ft. are common". Specimens were collected and are still preserved in the National Herbarium at Pretoria. During the same expedition Aitken and Gale also came across the stand of Raphia palms later named Raphia australis at Kosi Bay. The following year a Colonel Lugge made a similar trip and his cycad specimen is still on file in the Natal Herbarium.
During the next ten years or so, a number of people visited the area in which these plants had been found and brought back plants, many of which were planted in Durban homes. A Roman Catholic Missionary, Father Jacob Gerstner, collected plants in the 20's. A Mr. R.H. Rutherfoord of Obotini gathered specimens in 1927. All these people obtained their specimens independently and there was subsequently a rather curious set of correspondence in the Natal Mercury, in which each of them claims to have discovered the Kosi Bay cycad. Another story tells of a Zulu woman wearing a necklace of the red seeds and being seen in Durban's West Street by a passing botanist who, on questioning the lady, was told that the seed had come from a plant near Tongaat. In 1930 Sir Arthur Hill and Dr. J. Hutchinson, distinguished botanists from Kew Gardens, visited Durban and saw well established plants of this cycad in several local gardens. On returning to Kew, Hutchinson wrote up a description of the species in the 1932 issue of Kew Bulletin and thus twelve years after its first discovery in Natal, Encephalartos kosiensis was officially named.
When Hutchinson named E. kosiensis 1932 he was careful to note that this species was undoubtedly allied to E. ferox. Only about ten years later was the question raised of just how similar or how different these two taxa were and it was Miss I.C. Verdoorn who suggested that they might in fact be one and the same species. The key to the whole episode was Bertolini's original water-colour painting which his grandson found and sent to Kew. A copy of this painting found its way to H. Basil Christian, keen cycadologist and founder of the Ewanrigg Gardens near Harare. Christian immediately wrote to Kew and in a letter dated 5 December 1946, says ..."in my opinion this photograph definitely settles the question. ... Had Hutchinson seen this, it is possible that he may not have described the Kosi Bay plant as a new species." Since about 1950 the two taxa have been regarded as synonymous and E. ferox as the earlier of the two names, has precedence.
E. ferox is fairly well represented in public and private gardens the world over. According to CITES reports, local nurserymen have shipped plantlets to Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, U.S.A., Canada, England, France, Holland, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Japan and the Philippines. Mature plants are established in many European botanic gardens, including those in Warsaw, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Munich. Most major American botanic gardens have specimens with perhaps the finest plants being found at the Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Florida.