Cycads don't produce flowers, and existed long before flowering plants had evolved. Like conifers, they produce reproductive organs aggregated into cones. Each plant is either male or female, and in the case of Encephalartos woodii only a few male specimens have ever been discovered. The male plant produces cones containing pollen, the female cone contains ovules that later become the seeds. Pollen is transferred from one plant to the other mainly by insects like beetles, and sometimes by the wind.
In their native habitat cycads may produce cones regularly, but it depends upon the species and the growing conditions. In cultivation cycads produce cones less regularly than wild growing plants. This could be down to temperature and light levels, but it is thought to be mainly due to the fact that they are well cared for. In other words, they are treated too well and they get all the water and food they need, so tend to just produce new leaves. Cones are often produced when plants are stressed, so at Kew we are trying to be a bit nastier to them, giving them less water and food in the hope that they make cones more regularly so we can pollinate them to raise new plants from the seeds.
Propagating cycads is especially important because, under increasingly tight restrictions, collecting new plants from the wild has become very difficult. All cycad species are listed under CITES, the convention that regulates, and often forbids, export of endangered species.
To artificially pollinate these plants at Kew we mix the pollen with water and use a turkey baster to transfer this mix to the female cones. This technique has even been used to transfer pollen from male to female plants with ‘ready’ cones in different botanic gardens. Fertilised female cones can take anything from four to 18 months for the seeds to ripen.