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Eastern Cape giant cycad

Housed in a large wooden box at the southern end of the Palm House, the Eastern Cape giant cycad could be the oldest pot plant in the world.

Encephalartos altensteinii in Kew's Palm House

Historical information

Francis Masson, the first plant collector officially employed by Kew, brought  this Eastern Cape giant cycad (Encephalartos altensteinii) back from the Eastern Cape region of South Africa in 1775. It was one of the first plants to be moved to the Palm House when it first opened in 1848.

The plant produced its first cone in 1819, on which occasion Sir Joseph Banks, who had employed Masson as plant collector, came to the Gardens for the last time before his death. It has not had another cone since. It is remarkable to think that the plant thrived through the French Revolution, invention of the steam engine and humans first walking on the moon. It also survived both World Wars. During the Second World War, some 30 high explosives fell on Kew, with glass broken in the Palm and Temperate Houses.

Kew repotted the plant in 2009, the year of the Gardens' 250th anniversary. After three months of planning, the venerable cycad was transferred into fresh compost in a specially built box made from the tropical hardwood sapele. The plant weighs more than a tonne, so a gantry was needed to lift out the trunk and huge root ball. It had not been repotted since 1984, during renovations to the Palm House.

 

About this species

Encephalartos altensteinii is unique to South Africa. It is a medium to large plant with stems that extend up to five metres long and are 35cm in diameter. These grow vertically or at an angle, in clumps or individually.

The species is one of the most widely cultivated cycads. Initially planted at ground level, Kew’s ancient specimen measures 4.23m from the base of its stem to the growing point. This means it has only grown, on average, 2.5cm each year.

The name Encephalartos is derived from the Greek, and means ‘bread in the head’. It refers to how the native people of southwestern Africa used the plant. They removed the pith from the cycad’s stem and buried it in the ground for two months to remove toxins before kneading it into bread and baking it in embers.

Although some cycads can live to 2,500 years, they are rare in the wild today and are all protected by law.