Landscaping with cycads

Ancient treasures of the world

Interest in Cycads started in earnest approximately 20 years ago in South Africa and the fascination of these majestic, prehistoric plants has also attracted the attention of people in other countries.

South African cycads, commonly known as “Broodbome” , grow naturally in the northern and eastern provinces and on the east coast, from Mozambique down to the Humansdorp area. Cycads can reach up to seven metres in height

There is uncertainty as to the reason why these ancient plants, which existed since prehistoric times some 250 million years ago, have suddenly become so valuable and sought after today. For some people it lies in their beauty, for others it is because they are so rare and different from any other plants on earth. We will never really know, but whatever the reasons, Cycad collections are being bought up everywhere by private collectors as well as corporate institutions at an alarming rate. Cycad species sold for R500 some ten years ago are now in great demand for R15 000 per plant. In fact the demand far outstrips the availability of certain species.

This situation has unfortunately placed pressure on the natural habitat of many species. However, on the positive side it can be stated that more plants have been successfully propagated from seed by Cycad growers in the past ten years than nature itself in the last 1000 years.

There are thousands of Cycad enthusiasts countrywide and many of them belong to the Cycad Society of South Africa which is widely recognised for its excellent conservation efforts as well as its support for a programme of conservation through cultivation. It is fortunate that the recognition of these precious plants by private collectors and institutions worldwide has lead to greater awareness, organisedpropagation of seed, research and expeditions.

Cycads are not only collected by individuals in private gardens but magnificent collections can be viewed and enjoyed in parks and public gardens such as the botanical gardens of Pretoria, Durban, Kirstenbosch, Roodeport, the Union Buildings, Unisa and the Monte Casino Bird and Cycad garden, to name but a few in South Africa. There are also numerous parks and cycad gardens worldwide for public enjoyment.

Cycads grow to a ripe old age and individual plants in nature are estimated to be as old as 3 000 years. Some of these plants have grown up to seven metres in height.

Although conservation authorities are strict with the issuing of permits, they unfortunately do very little to proactively encourage organised pollination and germination of seed in the veld. Reestablishing of pure germinated seed back into its natural habitat can be another form of conservation and will ensure the stabilising of numbers in nature. This could also lead to job creation for many people in different provinces of South Africa and could bring about the protection of mature seed-bearing plants by the indigenous people themselves.

Funding of numerous projects by private individuals and institutions has now also influenced governmental bodies to make their own contributions, and hopefully this will result in similar conservation undertakings, as currently being experienced with the protection of wildlife worldwide.

Cycad societies have also been established in Australia and the USA and world conventions on cycads are held every three years in different countries. These are well attended by delegates made up of private collectors, conservationists and academics from around the world. Books and publications are also widely available. Cycads are the most primitive seed-bearing plants known to man.

As with dinosaurs, they reached their peak in numbers and diversity during the Jurassic period, 136 to 193 million years ago. They could almost be called the coelacanths of the plant world and relatively few of the original cycad forms survived the ice age. Cycads are monosexual but the sex becomes evident during the coning process. Female plants produce a seed-bearing, pineapplelooking cone, whereas the male has thinner, yellowish, pollen-laden cones.
South African cycads, which are the most sought after worldwide, belong to the Encephalartos family. Other forms occur in subtropical parts of the world such as the Americas, Asia and Australia and belong to the Cycas, Dioon and Zamia families.

South African cycads, also commonly known as “Broodbome”, grow naturally in the northern and eastern provinces and on the east coast, from Mozambique down to the Humansdorp area. Approximately 38 species have been described so far, one of which, E.woodii, is already extinct in nature and at least another seven species are on the brink
of extinction. Botanical history was made in 1895 when Dr Medley Wood collected the only specimen of a cycad from the Ngoye Forest in KwaZulu-Natal. This very rare plant was loaded onto an ox wagon and carted to the botanical gardens where it is still growing today.

Stems of the plant were separated from the main clump and replanted in the garden. In later years, one of the stems was donated to Kew Gardens in the UK where it is still being admired by visitors from all over the world.

This, the only clump of E.woodii, was collected from its natural habitat and this fact can be viewed in two different ways: on the one hand, Wood removed the only specimen of this plant from its habitat and in so doing, rendered it extinct in nature. Although the specie was on the brink of extinction through natural means, it could be claimed
by certain conservationists that it was improper to have removed the one and only remaining plant from its natural habitat. On the other hand, the removal of the plant has ensured the survival of the species for generations to come and it is estimated that there are now over 500 specimens of E. woodii all over the world. These were basal suckers from the original plant and its offspring – a process which is now continuing with positive and exponential results. E. woodii is considered to be one of the most valuable of all plant kinds on earth, both from a botanical and financial point of view. A mature E.woodii growing in a Johannesburg garden is currently on offer for R1 million. The discovery of new cycad specimens has given South Africa a rich inheritance.

The English writer Charles A Williams said: “I am a cycad. I saw the appearance of the dinosaurs, and their death. I saw the early appearance of mammals. My numbers were many when the Ice Age one million years ago decimated my relatives in Europe and North America. Your mind and your appreciation of me and other animals of my kingdom set you above other animals, yet you cannot comprehend my antiquity. My strength is in my antiquity and tenacity and you.”

Information and photos supplied by the AA Cycad Park.
Tel (012) 548 9233

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