Encephalartos latifrons - Lehmann  (Albany Cycad)

Stems of E. latifrons are up to 3m tall, and even as tall as 4,5m in exceptional cases, with a diameter of 30cm to 45cm. Stems may be single but are more usually branched from the base, sometimes forming a number of stems and suckers. Before new leaves emerge, the crown of the stem becomes woolly.

The beautiful broad leaves of E. latifrons may be 1m to 1,5m long with the top half or third, recurved or completely curled back. The mature leaf is hard and rigid, with a glossy dark green colour. The glossy rachis is clear and yellow. The young leaf is covered by fine hairs, which are lost with age. The petiole is 10cm to 20cm long and the leaf base has a conspicuous yellow-white collar.

The leaflets are attached to the rachis in a V-form, which is narrower towards the top of the leaf. The leaflets at the middle of the leaf are 10cm to 15cm long and 4cm to 6cm broad, excluding the lobes. The leaflets are 1,5cm to 2cm broad where they are attached to the rachis. The tips of the leaflets (and of the lobes) are pointed and fairly sharp. The upper margin of the leaflet is usually smooth, but may sometimes be toothed. The lower margin of the leaflet carries 2 to 4 triangular lobes, which are twisted out of the plane of the leaflet. The leaflets overlap upwards, especially in the top third of the leaf. Viewed from the side, the lowest lobes point downwards and the upper ones upwards, to form an interlocking pattern, which is very characteristic of the species. The leaflets are usually prominently nerved, especially on the under-side. The leaflets become more widely spread on the rachis towards the base of the leaf and become reduced in size. Only the very lowest ones sometimes become prickle-like, however. Some variation occurs in the appearance of the leaves, as is found in many other species. Some leaves are more sharply recurved than others while the leaflets may be generally smaller in some than in others. Some collectors believe that there areobservable differences between the leaves of male and female plants.

One to three cones may be formed. The colour of the cones is dark olive-green or dark bluish-green. The cones are carried on very short stout stalks. The cone scales are sparsely covered with fine hair. The male cone is almost cylindrical in shape and 30 to 50 cm long and 8 to 17 cm in diameter. It becomes narrower towards both ends. The scales at the middle of the cone are approximately 6cm to 7cm long and 3cm to 3,5cm broad, with prominent 2cm long beaks, which are curved downwards or sideways. The upper and lower surfaces of the scale are variably ribbed. The female cone is barrel-shaped, 50cm to 60cm long and 25cm in diameter, with a mass of up to 27kg. The median cone scales are about 8,5cm long and 5,5cm broad. The scale face protrudes 2cm to 2,5cm and is deeply furrowed, wrinkled and pimply. There are usually approximately 15 spirals of scales. The seeds are red in colour and large, approximately 5cm long and 2cm to 2,5cm in diameter. They are angled as a result of compression and have a fleshy beak.

Distribution & Habitat
E. latifrons occurs (or, more correctly, used to occur) in scattered groups in the districts of Bathurst and Albany in the Eastern Cape province. The plants grow on rocky outcrops and hill slopes, usually amongst scrub bush vegetation. The rainfall ranges from 1000mm to 1250mm per year, on average, and is fairly evenly distributed during the year. Frost does not occur. Summers may be hot and fairly dry. There existed an early report of E. latifrons occurring in the Uitenhage district, but this was almost certainly a mistake, possibly as a result of incorrect labelling.

Cultivation & Propagation
grow well in cultivation, as is obvious from the healthy plants in the fine collection at Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden in Cape Town, which was started more than 70 years ago. The plants need very good drainage, however. They would also require sufficient moisture and protection from frost.

E. latifrons has the reputation of being a very slow grower. Professor Charles Joseph Chamberlain came to this conclusion during his visit to Trappes Valley, near Grahamstown, in 1912 (Chamberlain, C.J. "The Living Cycads"). He spoke to "a pleasant, gray-haired lady", the owner of a house where two specimens of E. latifrons and three of E. altensteinii were growing in the garden. According to her, the plants were planted there "when she came to that house as a bride forty-six years before". She thought that the specimens of E. altensteinii might have grown 25cm ("a foot") during that time, but "that the E. latifrons did not seem to have grown any, although they always had green leaves". Two or more years may pass between the formation of sets of leaves.

E. latifrons was named by Lehmann and botanically described and illustrated for the first time in 1837/1838. The species name "latifrons" means "broad leaves" and is an appropriate name as E. latifrons has the broadest leaves in the genus, with the exception of some forms of E. ferox. The only other species with which E. latifrons could be confused, and to which it is most closely related is E. arenarius. The following guidelines may be used to distinguish between the two:

  • E. latifrons only occurs in the inland Albany and Bathurst districts and its distribution area does not overlap with that of E. arenarius, which occurs only in the coastal Alexandria district.
  • E. latifrons is a tall-growing species with stems up to 3m tall, while E. arenarius stems are only up to 1m tall.
  • The leaves of E. latifrons have a shiny dark-green colour, while those of E. arenarius have a duller-green or bluish-green colour, with a bloom, especially when young.
  • The leaflets of E. latifrons form an interlocking pattern, especially in the top third part of the leaf. The leaflets of E. arenarius are also lobed, but are widely spaced.
  • E. latifrons forms up to 4 cones while E. arenarius bears single cones.
  • The cones of E. latifrons are olive-green or bluish-green in colour, while E. arenarius has light green cones.

Natural hybrids between E. latifrons and E. altensteinii have been reported, although these seem to be very rare. The leaflets of the hybrids overlap markedly like those of E. latifrons but lack the lobes on the leaflets. The leaves show the bright green colour of the E. altensteinii parent.

E. latifrons is one of the rarest cycad species, and has probably never been abundant during the past century. The first director of the Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden, Prof. H.H.W. Pearson, wrote in 1916: "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." It is unlikely that reproduction by means of seed has occurred in nature since the above observation was made. Apart from the scarcity of the plants and the scattered nature of their distribution, reproduction must also have been hampered by the fact that female cones are apparently formed infrequently. The small number of E. latifrons specimens which existed when Chamberlain visited them in 1912, have all found their way to collections in South Africa and abroad, despite the fact that the species has been a declared endangered species in the Cape Province for a long time. Not only were plants removed from private farms, but virtually all those protected on land belonging to the Forestry Department, were stolen. This species has become extinct in nature, for all practical purposes.

References & Acknowledgements

  • Encephalartos Vol 8: Focus on Encephalartos latifrons - Maans Kemp
  • Habitat Photo 1 - Barry Gleaves
  • Habitat 2 & Leaf detail Photos - Anton McLean