Introduction to Cycads – Ancient Relics from the Dinosaur Age

Author: Dr Andre Cilliers

Dr André Cilliers was born in 1969 in Bloemfontein. Attended Grey College from 1976 to 1987. Studied Natural Science at the University of the Free State. Obtained BSc degree in 1990, majoring in Entomology and Microbiology. Continued to do a BSc (Hons) in Microbiology completed in 1991, and then an MSc from 1991 to 1993, also in Microbiology. He started out working at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) in Potchefstroom in 1994 as a Plant Pathologist. Soon thereafter, he registered for a PhD in Plant Pathology in 1998 and completed his PhD degree in 2000. In 2003 he then moved into the private sector, joining AECI (Plaaskem, later to become Nulandis), and still works there today. Initially employed to do research and develop new agricultural remedies, Dr Cilliers currently fulfils the role of marketing manager for Nulandis.

Introduction to Cycads – Ancient relics from the Dinosaur Age

Despite numerous natural disasters, cycads are a rare group of ancient plants that have survived through the centuries. The biggest threat to their natural survival now, are humans!

What cycads are — For those who don’t know

Most people know what cycads are, but for those who don’t allow me to explain. Cycads are ancient, very prickly, extremely slow-growing plants (sometimes referred to as trees). Cycads grow mainly in the warmer regions of the world, including Africa, Australia, the Far-East and Mexico.  These plants are dioecious, meaning that separate male and female plants exist. The females carry seed cones, whilst the males produce pollen cones.  They generally look like this (see Photo 1).

Photo 1

Typically, cycads look like this. These plants are dioecious, meaning that separate male and female plants exist. The females carry seed cones, whilst the males produce pollen cones.

Cycads are considered ancient plants — Not at all related to or like palms

Cycads are considered ancient. After many years, cycads might develop a stem, resulting in a similar appearance to palms. However, ancient cycads are very different from palms in so many ways. Cycads are therefore not related to or like palms at all.

Cycads are considered ancient for several reasons. Firstly, they have been detected in fossil records dating back several millions of years. Secondly, the characteristic of being dioecious is a primitive one, unlike higher plants that are self-pollinating.  This is considered to be a more advanced trait of more recent plants since more recent monoecious plants can reproduce fertile seed on its own.  In other words, cycads require both sexes to generate a seed that can be propagated.  Another example of such a plant is Ginkgo biloba, a fossil tree that was discovered alive and well in the deepest forests in China.  It looks like this (see Photo 2 & Photo 3).

Photo 2

The Ginkgo biloba seed/fruit

Photo 3

Ginkgo biloba is a fossil tree that was discovered alive and well in the deepest forests in China.

Cycads: Bread Trees / Broodbome

Cycads are often referred to as “Bread trees“ or “Broodbome”.  The reason for this is that cycads stems are rich in starch. Accordingly, indigenous African people actually used them as a starch source with which to bake bread.  Even today’s cycads are sometimes termed ‘’muthi’’ plants in some African cultures. A lesser-known interesting fact is that, when a cycad dies, it completely disintegrates.  There is no hardwood in the stem at all—very similar to the Baobab tree.

Cycad Age

Many people are curious as to how old cycads may grow to be. Scientifically speaking, this is a challenging question to answer, but in short—of relevance to the novice—a cycad may well grow to be a few hundred years of age. — Seen in (Picture 4) is an Encephalartos ghellincki in the Drakensburg mountains.  This is an example of a very slow-growing cycad species—it is thought that this particular plant must be at least 300 years old.

Photo 4

Here is a picture of an Encephalartos ghellincki in the Drakensburg mountains. This is a very slow-growing cycad species—it is thought that this particular plant must be at least 300 years old.

Cycad Reproduction

Cycads may reproduce in one of two ways. Sexually by means of a male and female plant that cone at the same time, leading to pollination taking place and fertile seeds resulting.  A female cycad cone looks like this (see Photo 5). By contrast, a male cycad cone looks like this (see Photo 6).

Photo 5

A female cycad cone

Photo 6

A male cycad cone

The male cycad cone is longer and slimmer since it only contains pollen. By contrast, the female cycad cone is larger since it is full of seeds. In the natural environment, generally, cycads are to be encountered in colonies. If it were not this way, successful pollination between male and female cycad plants would not be possible.  Within these colonies, specific insects are encountered in abundance. There is a very noticeable and necessary symbiotic relationship (a relationship where both parties benefit) between cycads and insects.  Without these specific insects, pollination would not take place.

The other method of reproduction is by the formation of “pups” or “suckers” on the mother plant. These can be removed and established as independent plants. This is not a natural process, and therefore is not (strictly speaking) a means of natural reproduction. However, with some human intervention, this process does result in the propagation of new cycad plants.  A pup that is removed from a cycad will have the same sex as the parent plant. This is known as asexual reproduction.

Cycad Genera

There are several genera of cycads, including EncephalartosDioonCycas and Zamia. Encephalartos occurs only in Africa, with the greatest diversity of species being in South Africa. Most grow in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. In total, South Africa has about 45 different cycad species, some of which are very rare.

Cycads—Valuable Plants

Most people who own cycads or know about them are aware that they are valuable plants.  The value of cycads is determined by three things (in this order): species, size and sex.  Most collectors want the rare species, large specimens and preferably the female plants (because they carry the seed which allows for the generation of seedlings).  Some cycad species are extremely rare, owing largely to the fact that, within the natural environment, they are rarely encountered.  In fact, some species of cycads have been found to exist only in single small colonies at a single geographic location on earth—nowhere else.  For this reason, cycads that are derivative of such a species, are more than likely have originated from this exact colony.  Most cycad collectors want a specimen of each and every available species. This no doubt leads to “supply and demand“ forces coming into play. For the avid collector, procuring rare cycad species often requires great sums of money.  For this reason, illegal trading in cycads does exist. Cycads may cost anything from R20 per cm (you always measure the stem at its largest part) to R10 000 per cm.

Illegal Cycad Trade

The huge amounts of money being paid for cycads have opened the door for significant worldwide illegal trade in cycads—very similar to the illegal rhino horn trade. In their illegal efforts to supply the increasing cycad demand by collectors, poor people continue to remove cycads from nature. It must be noted that all cycads are protected, and may not be removed from their natural environment. This current illegal trade in cycads is so bad that natural habitat cycads are now being micro-chipped in order to protect them and stop the scourge of illegal cycad trade. Whether to commercially trade or relocate cycads, a valid permit is required.  In other words, all commercial trade-in, and movement of cycads is strictly controlled.

Special Mention: Encephalartos Woodii

One particular species deserving of special mention is Encephalartos woodii.  This particular genus of the cycad was discovered at the Ngoya Forest circa 1900, by a botanist called John Medley Wood.  Only one specimen of this species (a male plant) has ever been discovered.  Today, subsequent specimens of the Encephalartos woodii—to be found in collections today—originated from this single plant, which is to be found at the Durban Botanical Gardens (Ed. See Special Collections) in KwaZulu-Natal (Photo 7).

Photo 7

The rare Encephalartos woodii may be found at the Durban Botanical Gardens in KwaZulu-Natal

One of these rare Encephalartos woodii plants (a specimen about 1 m in length) recently sold at auction for over R1 million, making it the most expensive plant ever sold.  The buyer was from the Middle East. The plant is not allowed to leave South Africa. Subsequently, it was placed on auction again, this time selling for R 600 000 to a local (South African) buyer and cycad collector.

Cycads Remain Under Threat

The increasing demand for these spectacular plants places existing cycad colonies that occur in their natural surroundings, under severe threat. Some cycad species have been completely stripped from their natural habitat and are only encountered in private collections.  Recently there has also been a lot of theft of cycads from South African botanical gardens around the country. We can only hope that these spectacular plants will be protected for generations to come.  To be seen in the accompanying photograph (see Photo 8) is a clump of Encephalartos longifolius in its natural environment (in the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa).

Photo 8

A clump of Encephalartos longifolius in its natural environment (Eastern Cape).


In conclusion, to the layperson or novice, from this short introductory overview it ought to be clear that cycads are truly very special plants indeed—rare plants that are well-worth protecting and propagating for future generations to appreciate and enjoy for many years yet to come.

Highlands Cycads thanks Dr. André Cilliers for contributing this feature article.


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