Encephalartos cerinus is a dwarf plant with a subterranean stem which may be partly exposed if growing in a rock crevice. Mature stems are 300mm long and 200mm to 250mm in diameter. It suckers or branches sparingly from the base.
E. cerinus has eight to ten leaves, 0.9m to 1.2m long with the median leaflets 13mm to 15mm long and 10mm to 12mm broad. The leaves are held almost vertical to the crown. The petiole or leaf stalk is 120mm to 180mm long and bare.
The pinnae are entire with occasionally one to two teeth on the lower margin of juvenile or seedling leaflets. The leaflets overlap from the middle of the leaf towards the top. The leaflets are blue green in colour and quite distinctive with a thick waxy covering. This covering leaves a very distinctive smell when rubbed. The latter fact gave rise to the specific epithet "cerinus" meaning waxy.
The cones of both sexes are solitary, although males in cultivation occasionally produce two or three together. The cones are blue green in colour, turning yellow at maturity. The cones likewise are covered with the thick waxy bloom so characteristic of this species. Male cones are 550mm to 600mm long and 80mm to 100mm in diameter. The median cone scales have a flattened terminal facet. The male cones are borne on an 80mm peduncle. The female cones are egg shaped, 300mm to 350mm long and 150mm to 180mm in diameter. The face of the female cone scales is smooth with a fringed lower edge. Seeds are 25mm long and 15mm in diameter and he sarcotesta is deep red.
E. cerinus has been known to collectors for almost 20 years but it was only described in 1989. Credit for the discovery of this species must go to Reinwald Dedekind who saw it growing at an African kraal and recognized that it was different to the other cycads in the area and that it was possibly a new species of Encephalartos. The original locality where the plants grew, was on a sheer sandstone cliff above a river in the Tugela Ferry area of KwaZulu-Natal. Less than a dozen plants were growing at this locality and for several years this was the only known locality. Extensive searches by botanists and cycad collectors failed to locate more plants until in 1987 a large thriving colony was discovered a few kilometres away from the original site. Substantial numbers of mature coning plants, juvenile as well as seedling plants, were found growing among rock crevices and boulders in a rocky ravine. Regrettably the news soon spread and the entire colony has since been wiped out by unscrupulous collectors.
Recent field work indicates that with the exception of a few plants growing on an inaccessibly rock face there are no plants left in the wild. The conservation status of E. cerinus is presently given by the conservation authorities as PE, "possibly extinct", which is a bitter indictment of the avarice of cycad collectors. In less than 20 years a new species has been collected to extinction in the wild. Given that no permission has ever been given for a single plant to be removed from the wild, all wild collected mature specimens in cultivation are illegal. The original plants from this gene pool are now scattered throughout private collections. Due to the exorbitant prices asked on the Black Market, few collectors own more than one mature plant and the production of pure viable seed is unlikely as a means of conserving the species. Likewise the presence of other species coning at the same time in the garden or neighbouring gardens, increases the likelihood of hybridization. Ex situ conservation is in many cases merely the preservation of a specimen but is not a viable option for the conservation of a species and habitat protection alone will ensure the survival of a species.