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Encephalartos altensteinii (Eastern Cape giant cycad)

The Eastern Cape giant cycad originates from South Africa, is long-lived and slow growing, and is popular as an ornamental plant.
Cones of Encephalartos altensteinii

Cones of Encephalartos altensteinii (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Encephalartos altensteinii Lehm.

Common name: 

Eastern Cape giant cycad

Conservation status: 

Rated as Vulnerable (VU) according to IUCN Red List criteria and listed on Appendix I of CITES.


Found near the coast in habitat ranging from open shrubland on steep rocky slopes to closed evergreen forest in valleys.

Key Uses: 


Known hazards: 

Not recorded.


Genus: Encephalartos

About this species

The name Encephalartos is derived from the Greek, and means ‘bread in the head’. This refers to the practice of removing the pith from the cycad's stem and burying it in the ground for two months before kneading it into bread and baking it in embers. During the two-month burial, toxins within the pith are destroyed.

The superb specimen of this cycad at Kew is one of the oldest pot plants in the world. It was collected in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa in the early 1770s and brought back to England in 1775 by Francis Masson, one of Kew's earliest plant collectors. For many years the Kew plant was known as E. longifolius but recent studies in South Africa have proved that it is E. altensteinii. The cycad now measures 4 m 23 cm from the base of its stem to the growing point (an average growth rate of only 2.5 cm per year). It has produced a cone only once at Kew. On that occasion in 1819, Sir Joseph Banks came to view the plant on what proved to be his last visit to Kew.


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