Encephalartos cycadifolius - (Jacq) Lehmann  (Cathcart Dwarf Cycad)

The maximum height of the stem of E. cycadifolius is approximately 1,5m but more commonly less than lm, with a diameter of approximately 25cm. In nature up to two thirds of the stem may be covered by soil. Numerous basal suckers are formed to create clusters of up to 10 or more stems from the same rootstock. Damage to the crown of the stem sometimes results in multi-headed stems.

The dark olive-green leaves are 60cm to lm long, with bare petioles of 10cm to 20cm long. The leaf stalk is usually slightly spiraled, giving the leaf a characteristic twist. The leaf stalks, especially the older ones, are yellow to orange in colour. The whole leaf is covered by fine white wool when young, but these are lost with age. The leaf stalk of dead leaves remains on the plant for many months and hang around the stem. The median pinnae are 9cm to 13cm long and 4mm to 6mm broad. The leaflets have smooth, thickened edges and no thorns and are attached to the rachis in the form of a wide V, with no or very little overlapping. The leaflets are reduced in size towards the base and the tip of the leaf.

One or two cones on short stalks are formed in male and female plants. The yellow cones are covered with a thick layer of greyish white hair, which becomes brown with age. In multi-stemmed plants, only one or two of the stems will form cones at the same time. The male cone is more or less cylindrical in shape, 13cm to 22cm long and 5cm to 8cm in diameter. The nose of the cone scale projects only slightly. The median cone scales are approximately 2cm long and 1,8cm broad. The more or less barrel-shaped female cone is 20cm to 30cm long and 16cm to 18cm in diameter. The median cone scales are 4mm to 4,5mm long and 4mm broad, with a flattened face. The seeds are orange-yellow through orange to amber-brown in colour.

Distribution & Habitat
E. cycadifolius has a restricted and narrow distribution range which includes a few areas on the Winterberg mountain range in the districts of Bedford and Cradock. After describing his visit to the Cathcart area in 1912, where he saw specimens of E. friderici-guilielmi, amongst others, Prof C. J. Chamberlain writes about his visit to East London: "There are four cycads at East London, Stangeria, Encephalartos altensteinii, E. villosus and E. cycadifolius, all within easy distance from the city. He then correctly describes the twisted leaves of the latter species as we know it today, and mentions that the "opportunity to study (these) four cycads in one locality was unusual". He also managed to "secure" one plant and a fully-grown female cone. The vicinity of East London is so far removed from the habitat of E. cycadifolius in distance and nature, that one can only guess that Prof. Chamberlain's memory played him parts or that his notes got mixed up.

Plants grow on mountainsides, usually on exposed northern and eastern slopes, at altitudes of up to 1800m. Winter temperatures drop to -6 °C and lower, and snow and frost occur frequently. In this respect, the species share a similar habitat with other species with narrow leaflets such as E. friderici-guilielmi and E. ghellinckii. Rain falls in summer, at an average of 625mm and 800mm per year. Lengthy periods of drought are not uncommon, however, plants are often hidden away in the grass and many grow in-between rocks, which offer them shade and protection against cold, fire and porcupines. The blackened stems of older plants attest to the occurrence of veld fires, to which the species is well adapted. There are strong indications that fire serves as a stimulus for leaf and cone development. In Bothalia, Vol. 8, part 4 of 1965, Dr Dyer recounts the observations of Mr. V.L. Pringle, who noticed that E. cycadifolius plants formed new leaves soon after a veld fire and were "looking better than ever before". Mr. Pringle continues: "There is scarcely one in hundreds which has not fruited."

Cultivation & Propagation
Mature plants of E. cycadifolius are difficult to transplant and, if they survive, up to five years may pass before they will form new leaves. Plants in cultivation also do not cone regularly. Despite these facts, there are specimens in many botanical and private gardens. Seeds germinate easily however, and seedlings grow without difficulty. They are hardy and should be planted in well drained soil. Plants require full sun and are completely frost-hardy.

One small plant of E. cycadifolius and one female cone were collected in the Eastern Cape by the Viennese collector-gardener, Georgius Scholl, before 1800. The plant, together with specimens of E. horridus and E. longifolius, was taken overland to Cape Town by Scholl, and from there by boat to Vienna in 1799, for cultivation in the Royal Garden at Schoenbrunn. Here the plant was described and illustrated in 1801 by the botanist, Jacquin, who named it Zamia cycadifolia, apparently because the leaves reminded him of those of Cycas revoluta. For the next 150 years the plant was virtually ignored in it's habitat and specimens were only collected two or three times during this period, one of which was in 1895. The reason for this must be sought in the fact that the species occurs in areas away from the main roads and railways, and probably also in it's inconspicuous nature. When he created the genus Encephalartos in 1834, Lehmann transferred Jacquin's name to the new genus, and the species became Encephalartos cycadifolius. Lehmann at the same time described a new species, which he separated from E. cycadifolius, and which he called E. friderici-guilielmi. Lehmann made this decision on very limited information and over the years his decision was questioned. While authors such as Miquel (1842) and Thiselton-Dyer (1878) accepted the separation of the two species, others such as A. De Candolle (1868), Hutchinson and Rattray (1933) and Henderson (1945) rejected it. The authors supporting the latter view mostly used the name E. cycadifolius for the species we now know as E. friderici-guilielmi. Dr Inez Verdoorn also supported the latter view and introduced another complication when she described a new species in 1954, E. eximius, from specimens collected in the Bedford and Cradock districts by Dr. R. Story in April 1951. According to Dr. Verdoorn, "All efforts by interested botanists to find the species in the veld failed until 1951." Dr Allan Dyer brought the debate to an end in 1965 when he confirmed E. cycadifolius as separate from E. friderici-guilielmi, which E. eximius had been based on by Dr. Verdoorn.

E. cycadifolius is most closely related to E. friderici-guilielmi with which it has been confused in the literature for many years, and E. ghellinckii. These three species share similar habitats. It is impossible to confuse E. cycadifolius and E. friderici-guilielmi in nature, as their habitats do not overlap, the former being restricted to the Winterberg range in the districts of Bedford and Cradock, while the latter occurs in the districts of Cathcart and Queenstown and further east. Cultivated plants, and especially seedlings, may create confusion. However, the following features distinguish the two species:

  • • The stems of E. friderici-guilielmi are tall and thick.
  • The median leaflets of E. cycadifolius are narrower and shorter than those of E. friderici-guilielmi, which are up to 18cm long and 8mm broad.
  • The leaf crown of E. cycadifolius is cup-shaped at all times, while in E. friderici-quilielmi the leaves are held at an angle of 45 degrees to the stem and drop down to a horizontal position when cones are produced.
  • There is hardly any wool on the crown of E. cycadifolius at any time, while the crown of E. friderici-guilielmi has thick wool at all times.
  • E. cycadifolius produces only one or two cones at a time, while E. friderici-guilielmi can produce as many as twelve male and six female cones at a time.

The distribution range of E. cycadifolius is also far removed from that of E. ghellinckii, which occurs along the Drakensberg mountain range much further east. The following features can be used to distinguish plants in cultivation:

  • E. cycadifolius has no wool on the crown, while E. ghellinckii has dense wool on the crown.
  • The leaflets of E. cycadifolius are twice as broad as those of E. ghellinckii, which are only up to 4mm broad.
  • The leaflet margins of E. cycadifolius are thickened while those of E. ghellinckii are rolled back.

No natural or artificial hybrids involving E. cycadifolius have been reported. E. cycadifolius is well adapted to it's environment. It has turned veld fires into an advantage and it survives droughts by producing cones and leaves only when conditions are favourable. It suffers from porcupines, which eat the female cone scales and bite into exposed stems, and baboons, which pull out newly formed leaves and break off the cones. Despite these threats, sufficient numbers of these plants occur in its restricted habitat to ensure natural reproduction. Numbers of plants have been removed from habitat by collectors, but the fact that it is notoriously difficult to transplant successfully has probably also made illegal collectors hesitant to run great risks to obtain plants which may die anyway. Other factors in favour of the survival of the species, are that plants grown in areas not suitable for cultivation and road building, and the fact that they grow far away from public roads. On the negative side there is the fact that no populations fall within any protected areas such as nature reserves. As far as is known, all populations occur on privately owned farms. Many of these farmers are very conservation-conscious and value the presence of this interesting cycad species on their farms. The species is classified as "vulnerable" by the Threatened Plant Unit of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and is therefore in need of stringent protection.

References & Acknowledgements

  • Encephalartos Vol 26: Focus on Encephalartos cycadifolius - Maans Kemp