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What is Encephalartos?

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  • Written By: Alex Tree
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 29 November 2016
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Encephalartos is a rare genus of cycads or seed plants from the Zamiaceae family. Cycads are a group of tropical plants that are recognized for their large crown of palm-like foliage and robust trunks. The Encephalartos genus is mainly native to the southern regions of Africa, but has also been seen in forests of Australia and South America. All species are on the endangered list of flora. Species from this genus are classified as deciduous perennials that naturally grow in moist open forests but can be cultivated in gardens for ornamental functions. Common names for these types of plants include bread palms, bread tree, and Kaffir bread.

Most species of Encephalartos hold similar physical characteristics to ferns and palm trees, such as feather-like leaf arrangements and erect stout trunks that can reach heights of 9 to 19 feet (3 to 6 m) or more. Its elongated leaves can display dark green and bluish green colors, depending on the species and location. These rare plants’ most distinguishing feature is a cylindrical cone-like structure that can be seen at the top of the trunk in the middle of its leaves. This is actually the reproductive male part of the plant where four to five more yellow or brownish yellow cones will eventually emerge. Encephalartos species with female parts are seldom seen.

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The most common garden-variety species is the Encephalartos villosus, also known as poor man’s cycad. This ornamental dwarf cycad grows rapidly to its full height of 1.5 feet (0.4 m). Fine white hair coats its long green leaves that are attached to stalks that can reach lengths of 5 to 9 feet (1.5 to 3 m). Among the 62 species of this genus, Encephalartos villosus is one of the varieties with a female reproductive cone that bears several red seeds. These are very expensive ornamental plants that need partial shade in order to fully mature.

A species of bread palm that has been documented to have purely male specimens is the Encephalartos woodii, or wood’s cycad. Female wood’s cycads have not been found since the species’ discovery in 1895 in the Ngoye forest of KwaZulu-Natal. This plant is known to have long green glossy leaves arranged in an umbrella-shaped formation with six to eight yellow male cones at the center of the foliage. As seeds are only possible with female cones, propagation is only possible by planting a root sprout from the base of the plant. Fully matured wood’s cycad can reach 19 feet (6 m) in height.

National and international legislation have been enacted to protect Encephalartos. Permits are required to sell, purchase, and donate these types of plants. Even hybrids of this almost extinct genus are covered by protective laws to ensure their prolonged existence.

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