Encephalartos in Central Africa

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The cycad genus Encephalartos has captured the imagination of botanists, plant lovers, landscapers and enthusiasts for over one hundred years. The many members of the genus Encephalartos are arguably the most diverse, widely distributed and spectacular of all the cycad families and are endemic to the continent of Africa. Their range extends from Nigeria, eight degrees north of the equator to the bottom tip of South Africa below Port Elizabeth. Over half of the Encephalartos species grow in South Africa and when one visits this beautiful country, these plants can be seen everywhere; adorning public buildings, along streets and in public and private gardens. They are one of the true botanical treasures of that country and have been the subject of two impressive works by Giddy (1984) "The Cycads of South Africa" and Goode (1989) "The Cycads of Africa".

The genus Encephalartos was originally described by Lehmann in 1834 and it is fascinating that new species of the genus are still being found and described one hundred and sixty four years later. This is obviously a result of their vast geographic distribution and the fact that cycads are often referred to in popular literature as "living fossils"; and that many exist as relic populations in remote inaccessible places which are rarely visited by people.

This work focuses on those Encephalartos species found outside South Africa. The central African species tend to be larger, more vigorous in cultivation, yet more difficult to visit and study than the South African species. As a result, many of these plants remain virtually unknown and many are poorly represented photographically. The purpose of this work is in part to remedy this and to describe the plants with particular reference to their field characteristics pertaining to stems, leaves and cones rather than provide detailed botanical descriptions which have been dealt with elsewhere. Some notes on how each species grows in cultivation are also provided.

It is my hope that many more people all over the world will appreciate and perhaps grow Encephalartos in their gardens and that some will propagate them so that the cycads of Africa can become as popular as the beautiful cycad, Cycas revoluta now grown worldwide in its millions.

There are 3 species of Encephalartos and a new subspecies (as yet unpublished). growing in Kenya. These are: They are all large spectacular cycads.

Firsty discovered was a single female plant. Now widespread colonies have been found in Zambia.

So far there are 5 species of cycads that have been described, as growing in Tanzania. The plants recorded are: There are also reports of at least 2 additional undescribed species in Tanzania. One of these species closely resembles E. hildebrandtii. However, the cones are red instead of yellow.

The four species so far described as from Uganda are: We visited the first three species. E. macrostrobilus is very recently described from the Madi district, an area that is too dangerous to visit.

There are at least 7 cycads which are found in Democratic Republic of Congo, 6 of which have been described officially. These are: There is also an undescribed species in the far northeast corner around the towns of Bunia and Irumu.

The only cycad thought to occur in this area was E. septentrionalis. We visited it at Moyo in Northern Uganda and also found a new, undescribed species growing in the mountains, eighty kilometres inland frort the Immatong mountains which form part of the border with Uganda, an area when cycads have previously been reported.

Cycads found in Mozambique, which have been described sofar, include:

At present there are 2 named species growing in Zimbabwe: The cycads which grow on and around the property called 'Elizabethville' near Chipingi, close to the Chimanimani mountains are at present described as a form of E. manikensis, but will no doubt become a new species in the future.


Contributed by:

Peter Heibloem,Cycad Gardens.
Reproduced from Palms & Cycads No. 60-61, July-Dec 1998