Cycad overview

Cycads are often referred to as prehistoric plants that resemble a cross between palms and ferns despite the fact that they belong to a completely different plant group and are actually closer cousins to conifers, the cone-bearing plants. During the Jurassic age cycads were a dominant plant species, which means they have been surviving for some 250 million years! Globally there are three cycad families: Cycadaceae, Strangeriaceae and Zamiaceae and 11 cycad genera. Important for all South Africans is the Encephalartos genera, which belongs to the Zamiaceae family.

There is nothing really notable about cycad leafs, except that some species have leaves so prickly that they can draw blood or rip clothing. Cycads do not produce flowers and unlike timber they cannot be used for the manufacturing of goods. Even so they remain highly sought after by plant collectors, cycad enthusiasts and landscaping companies.

Cycads have various growth forms but in general they are stout plants with dull coloured, scaly, trunks that can reach as high as three meters in some species.

Cycad parts, especially the seeds of most cycad species, possess potent neurotoxins strong enough to paralyse grazing cattle and even produce Alzheimer's-like symptoms in human beings. The plants grow extremely slowly and can take decades, or even centuries to mature.

Cycads are dioecious, which means that a plant is either male or female. Both male and female cycads produce cones. The female plants usually produce massive, fat rounded cones which contain the seeds. The cones of the different cycad species vary in colour from bright yellow to dull orange. Female cones in some species can weigh more than 20kg, whereas male cones are usually more slender and longer. As many as three or four cones may appear at a time. Studies show that the pollination of the female cone is triggered through the generation of heat which produces a particular scent that attracts certain pollinators, specifically burrowing weevils. The insects then do the work, moving pollen from the male cones to the female cones while they search for food, safety and a place to breed. Pollination can also take place with the help of birds and the wind.

Cycads are the most ancient seed plants still living today and have survived three mass extinctions in Earth’s history and are currently facing a fourth in South Africa due to human activity. This is predominantly as a result of the illegal harvesting of wild populations and the illegal trade in cycads (both domestically and internationally). Other threats to cycads include habitat destruction and their use in traditional practices.