Encephalartos woodii (Wood's cycad)
Wood’s cycad is an extremely rare plant. Along with its striking appearance, this makes it one of the most sought-after cycad species in the world.
About this Species
In 1895, a single clump of this cycad was discovered by John Medley Wood on the edge of a forest in South Africa. In 1903, Wood sent his deputy, James Wylie to collect some of the smaller offsets for cultivation in the Durban Botanic Garden, where they survive to this day. More offsets were collected from the wild until finally in 1916, the Forestry Department collected the last remaining stem, making the species extinct in the wild. To date, no other wild specimen has been discovered. Two more male cycads have been found that resemble E. woodii but are not identical. All of them are male. The successful cultivation of offsets of the original plant has ensured the ex-situ preservation of this enigmatic species.
In addition to its rarity, the striking appearance of Wood’s cycad makes it one of the most sought-after cycad species in the world.
Given the circumstances of its discovery, it is not surprising that very little is known about the natural history of Wood’s cycad. Nonetheless, cycads in general share a number of common traits. All are long-lived, slow-growing plants that bear their reproductive organs in cones on separate plants, with male cycads bearing ones that contain pollen, and female cycads producing ones that contain ovules that later become seeds. For a long time cycads were thought to be entirely wind-pollinated, like cone-producing conifers. However, studies now suggest that the vast majority, if not all, are actually pollinated by insects, or more specifically weevils. The seeds produced by cycads are large and have a fleshy outer coat, but are relatively short-lived and vulnerable to desiccation. The outer coat of the seed is desirable to a range of animals such as birds, rodents and bats, which inadvertently help to disperse them.
Geography & Distribution
The original plant was discovered on the fringes of the Ngoye Forest in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. There are now around 500 individual male plants propagated from the original and growing in botanic gardens and private collections around the world.
Close up of Encephalartos woodii cone (Image: Andrew McRobb, RBG Kew)
Growing up to six metres in height, the trunk is topped with an umbrella-shaped crown of 2 - 3 metre long, glossy, dark-green leaves. In mature specimens, the trunk can branch in the crown, and atypically for cycads, broaden towards the base to form a kind of buttress which supports the plant’s vast weight. In common with all cycads, the woody trunk mostly comprises soft, pithy storage tissue protected by a solid layer of old leaf-bases. Owing to their common origin, all the Wood’s cycads in cultivation are male, and consequently only produce the pollen-bearing male cones. These are bright orange in colour, cylindrical in shape and can grow up to 1.2 metres in length.
Threats & ConservationMore Information
It is not known what drove Wood’s cycad to extinction in the wild, or indeed if it ever was abundant. Cycads are widely used in traditional rituals and medicine which may destroy the plants. Collecting plants for horticulture is also a serious threat to cycads and for that reason they are all listed on CITES, restricting or prohibiting their export and trade.
Although the area in which the original Wood’s cycad was discovered is well explored, it is yet to be thoroughly surveyed. Consequently, there is still hope that a female plant will eventually be found, and that could reproduce with the growing population of male clones in cultivation. Alternatively, there is a remote possibility that one of the plants in cultivation will undergo a spontaneous sex change, as has been documented in a few cases in other cycad species. Meanwhile, efforts are being made to create a female plant by crossing Wood’s cycad with the closely related E. natalensis. By successively backcrossing the female hybrid offspring with male Wood’s cycads, the aim is to eventually produce a ‘pure’ female. The project has currently created second generation crosses.
Black Market CycadsMore Information
The rarity of these cycads is part of their appeal to a network of smugglers and thieves, who try to evade restrictions placed on plant movements by the CITES treaty. The other is a network of willing and obsessive buyers who grow their collections in secrecy to avoid having their own illegal plants removed. Enormous sums of money change hands, and because of the rarity of the species and their colourful history, offsets can sell for as much as $20,000 each.
It is therefore not surprising that theft is a serious problem. It is so serious that the San Diego Police Department in southern California assigned an officer to 'cycad beat' to monitor these precious plants. Elsewhere in the Hollywood Hills, Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey, David Bowie and Kevin Costner are among the celebrities that cycad-sellers report as collectors. ''I planted a huge grove of them in Brad Pitt's garden,'' says Jay Griffith, his landscape designer. ''And Brad flipped. He kept saying, 'I want more and more.' To me, they are most majestic when you plant gobs of them. You expect a triceratops to come around the corner and just gobble them up.'' Brad is not infringing any regulations though: his cycads are the commoner cycad species, Cycas revoluta, the so-called sago palm.
Wood's cycad requires fertile well-drained soil and ample water. It can withstand relatively long dry spells but plants that receive regular water are healthier and have larger leaves. During summer give sufficient water to soak the root area once a week. Watering can be suspended during winter. Good drainage is crucial. In hot dry regions inland, the sun tends to burn the leaves and they are better planted in light shade. A mulch of well-rotted compost applied at least once a year around the base of the plant, plus application of a balanced fertiliser twice a year during summer will keep the plant in good condition and maintain growth, which can be the fastest of any cycad. The species is most easily propagated by removing five year old offsets from the base. Branches from near the top can also be cut off and rooted in a warm environment. Leaf cuttings from hardened-off leaves with as much of the basal tissue as possible should be put into a sterilized sharp sand and pumice mixture. They should be kept in a humid environment and fed regularly as soon as roots have formed.
This species at Kew
Encephalartos woodii can be seen growing in the Temperate House at Kew, where it regularly produces new flushes of leaves.
Find out more about cycads on the Kew website here
Further information on Wood’s cycad and the conservation of cycads in South Africa can be found at the South African National Biodiversity Institute website
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Floating water-plantain seems to have spread eastwards from its 'home' territory of North and mid-Wales, in particular Snowdonia, as a result of the building of the canal systems in the 19th century.
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