Encephalartos ghellinkii - Specie described by Lemaire  (Drakensburg Cycad)

Encephalartos ghellinkii is a medium-sized plant with stems about 1m tall and a diameter of 30cm to 40cm. Initially the stems are single and suckers develope later. Old specimens can reach 3m eventually but these stems become leaning, sometimes almost horizontal. The plant then suckers and forms a clump of five or more stems on the same root. Stems end in an open, brown, wooly crown.

Leaves are about 750mm long and only rarely exceed 1m in length. The stiff rachis is yellowish in colour and leaves can be spirally twisted along it's length. The petiole can be 200mm to 250mm long with no prickles or spines. The leaves are covered in dense, grey hair when young but this is soon shed to reveal the dark green colour of the foliage.

The pinnae are closely packed and set into the rachis in an inverted 'V'. The median pinnae are 80mm to 140mm long and 2mm to 4mm wide. The margins are strongly revolute to give a needle-like appearance. This is a key characteristic to identify this species. The leaflet insertion angle and revolute margins are both adaptations to the harsh habitat in which it occurs. Heavy snowfalls and dessicating winds are not unusuall. The pinnae are entire, pungent-tipped and slightly reduced in size towards the end of the leaf and the petiole. The coastal and Berg forms of E. ghellinkii differ in leaf form with the lower altitude plants having longer and narrower pinnae. Plants in the Natal midlands are intermediate between the coastal and montane forms.

E. ghellinkii bears up to 5 female cones or seven male cones per stem. Cones are tomentose and pale brown. Peducles are short and stout. The male strobilus is 200mm to 250mm long and 60mm to 70mm in diameter, cylindrical and tapering at the ends. Cones can often be slightly curved. Female strobili are about the same length but 120mm to 150mm in diameter and barrel shaped. Seeds have a golden-yellow sarcotesta and measure about 30mm by 20mm.

Distribution & Habitat
The species is endemic to KwaZulu-Natal and occurs at a range of altitudes from 700m to 2400m. Habitat varies from grassland and rocky outcrops to sandstone cliffs in the Drakensberg where E. ghellinkii is asociated with montane 'fynbos' vegetation. Localities are found south at Flagstaff and Port Shepstone and north to Richmond, Bulwer and Estcourt. In the Drakensberg it is found from Giant's Castle in the south to Mont-aux-Sources in the north. The largest stands are found in Mlambonja Valley. As with many grassland species E. ghellinkii is also associated with a fire cycle. This seems to stimulate new leaf flushes and is possibly necessary for coning. The climate is mild to hot in summer. Winters are very cold with snow at the higher altitudes. Coastal areas have a mild winter climate.

Cultivation & Propagation
E. ghellinkii does not grow well away from it's habitat and does not adapt readily to garden or glashouse conditions. Plants are very slow to re-establish if transplanted and rarely cones. The high altitude forms are particularly unhappy with hot, humid conditions. Seed of this species is not readily available.

E. ghellinkii is probably one of the lesser known Encephalartos species. This is probably because they are dificult to cultivate away from it's habitat. E. ghellinkii is unique in two aspects. It is the only Encephalartos species with revolute pinnae and occurs over the widest (700m - 2400m) altitude range. It was named after one M. Ed. de Ghellink de Walle, a prominent amateur botanist from Ghent,Belgium where he kept a fine collection of plants.

E. ghellinkii is thought to be related to E. friderici-guilielmi and E. cycadifolius. The distribution of the former two only meets near Tabankulu and no evidence of hybridization has been observed. This species is classified as vulnerable and in need of conservation. Seeds are eaten by baboons and it is likely that only the sarcotesta is consumed and the kernel discarded, thus helping to spread the seed.

References & Acknowledgements

  • Encephalartos Vol 12: Focus on Encephalartos ghellinkii - Roy Osborne
  • Cycads of the World - David L Jones, 1993
  • Habitat Photo -