The iconic cycads

The associated mystery and stately appearance of cycads makes them sought-after in gardens around the world. This demand makes wild populations vulnerable to poachers who illegally harvest cycads to sell on the black market.
Issue date: 14 March 2008

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All cycads in South Africa belong to the genus Encephalartos. The stately beauty of these ancient plants, coupled with the reputation they have as status symbols, has resulted in the plunder of wild populations over past decades so that today cycads are undoubtedly the most highly protected group of plants. They have become a national icon and rank first among the “big five” of the plant kingdom. Although perhaps not flowering plants in the usual sense, cycads are included in this series on wildflower conservation because of their popularity and the very real threats to their survival. The fascination with these plants is to some extent due to their aura of mystery as one of the most primitive, living seed-bearing plants.

Cycads belong to the ancient group of plants known as Gymnosperms (Greek for naked seeds). produce seeds in cones. Most modern plants produce seeds enclosed in an ovary. As testified for by extensive fossil records, Gymnosperms were the dominant vegetation type during the warm, humid Carboniferous period of the earth’s history between 60 million to 70 million years ago – when the vast coal beds were formed. Similar to the Coelacanths of the fish world, cycads are survivors from that period and can be described as fossil plants that occur and thrive in a variety of habitats from the dry Karoo hills to highland grasslands and subtropical forests and woodlands. In appearance they resemble palms and tree ferns, but are not related to either of these groups. Cycads grow extremely slowly. plants produce a new whorl of leaves every three to four years. The older leaves die off leaving a compact ring of leaf bases, which then form a continuous and slowly lengthening stem. stems can grow to between 4m and 5m and eventually lean in a prostrate position. The mature plants sucker readily and continually give rise to new stems that replace the older stems which ultimately die off.

Estimates of the age of stems can be made by counting the leaf rings. Ages of many hundreds of years are commonly estimated. However, the age of the original plant that had a continual succession of new stems replacing old stems, could be many thousands of years. very slow recruitment of young plants, coupled with their slow growth, places great pressure on the sustainability of wild populations. A threatened population Mature plants are impressive as landscape and garden subjects and easily survive transplanting. Over the years these attributes have led to extensive illegal removal of cycads from the wild. result is severe depletion of wild populations. ycads belong to the family Zamiaceae, a group of primitive plants occurring in parts of the world that were originally joined together as the ancient supercontinent, Gondwanaland. For instance, cycads occur today in countries as widely separated as south and central America, Australia and the Far East. main African genus is Encephalartos, so named because early plant explorers observed indigenous inhabitants eating the pithy core of the upper stems (Greek en for within, kephale meaning head and artos meaning bread). The Afrikaans name “Broodboom” also refers to this. New species are regularly recorded and there are now in excess of 40 species recorded in South Africa. The species vary considerably in size and appearance. The Encephalartos longifolius, which occurs in the Uitenhage and Somerset East districts is tall and stately. Others are small and insignificant with underground stems, such as Encephalartos humilis found in Mpumalanga. Encephalartos woodii is extremely rare and known only by two male plants originally found in the Ngoye forest of KwaZulu-Natal. Other species are more common and widespread such as the Encephalartos altensteinii occurring in the Eastern Cape coastal and adjacent inland areas from Port Elizabeth to the KwaZulu-Natal border.

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Isolation is not good for cycads Cycads are dioecious which means the plants are either male or female. The sex can only be distinguished when the plant forms a cone. Male plants have smaller pollen-producing cones and female plants have larger seed cones that disintegrate when mature. Hundreds of viable seeds are then distributed in the vicinity. Pollination is by wind with the male plants producing copious amounts of pollen. For successful reproduction both male and female plants need to occur in the same population and need to cone simultaneously. I know of a group of female Encephalartos cycadifolius on the west side of the Fish River in the Somerset East district that are separated from the main population on the east side. Although these plants cone regularly pollen never reaches them and the seeds produced are sterile. There is a strong case for introducing a male plant to the area. Legislation In terms of the Biodiversity Act No 10 of 2004, it’s illegal to remove, transport, damage or destroy wild cycad plants. In terms of legislation, all cycads in private gardens have to be registered with the respective nature conservation authorities who issue permits. All trade in cycads is prohibited except in the case of registered cycad nurseries.

Now, new legislation has been proposed to better control the scope of illegal trade. The new legislation aims to limit the size of seedlings sold by nurseries. The stipulated maximum stem diameter is 15cm for the larger species and 7cm for the smaller species. Seed collected from wild populations would also be prohibited. Whether this legislation will lead to more effective protection of wild populations is debatable and questioned by many roleplayers in conservation circles. Registered cycad nurseries are particularly concerned as they fulfill the essential role of legally supplying an insatiable demand for plants of reasonable size, legitimately grown from seed. Their trade would be negatively affected if the size limit for trading is enforced. The logical consequence of this would be increased poaching of wild plants and a black market trade at enormously inflated prices. Tourism There is a massive worldwide interest in cycads from growers, collectors and gardeners. International bodies organise regular symposiums in different countries where cycad enthusiasts meet. Tours are arranged in different countries to view wild populations. Farmers who are fortunate enough to have wild populations on their properties are responsible for a priceless national asset increasingly at risk from poachers. This all creates the potential for cycad tourism. Some landowners with healthy and well-conserved populations are already exploiting this market. Farm accommodation and guided field excursions to view cycads could bring added value to a farm enterprise. In South Africa, the interests of cycad enthusiasts are catered for by the Cycad Society which also produces an interesting quarterly journal titled Encephalartos. – Cameron McMaster ([email protected]). Contact the Cycad Society secretary, Ian Bassingthwaighte, at e-mail [email protected] or visit