Drakensberg cycad (Encephalartos ghellinckii)

Drakensberg cycad on a hillside
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Drakensberg cycad fact file

Drakensberg cycad description

GenusEncephalartos (1)

The Drakensberg cycad takes its common name from the stunning South African mountain range on which it is found. A medium-sized plant, the thick stems of the Drakensberg cycad are usually around one metre tall, but older stems may reach up to three metres in length, at which point they tend to lean over, sometimes becoming almost horizontal (2) (4). At lower elevations in the Eastern Province, specimens tend to be smaller and less robust than those higher up in the mountains (2) (5). Although the un-branching stems initially grow singularly, over time, individual plants may sucker from the base to form clumps of five or more stems (4). The spirally twisted mature leaves are bright olive-green, but new leaves are greyish and covered in wool (4) (5) (6). Male and female plants both produce up to five woolly, yellow to beige cones (5).

Stem length: up to 3 m (2)

Drakensberg cycad biology

Cycads are long-lived, slow growing plants that always occur as individual male or female plants (2) (6). There is no way of determining the sex of a cycad until it begins to produce its first cone (2). For a long time cycads were thought, like cone-producing conifers, to be entirely wind pollinated (7). However, studies now suggest that the vast majority, if not all cycads, are actually pollinated by insects or more specifically weevils (2) (6) (7). To attract pollinators, male and female cones produce powerful odours, usually in the early morning or evening (2). Travelling between the sexes, the weevils pollinate the plants by inadvertently transferring pollen from the male cones to the receptive ovules of the female cones (2) (8).

The seeds produced by cycads are large and have a fleshy outer coat, but are relatively short-lived and vulnerable to desiccation. The fleshy outer layer is desirable to a range of animals such as birds, rodents and bats, depending on the species of cycad and region it occupies. However, with any luck the unpalatable seed is discarded some distance away from the parent plant in a hospitable environment in which to germinate (6).


Drakensberg cycad range

The distribution of the Drakensberg cycad is mainly confined to mountainous regions of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, but also extends into parts of the Eastern Cape Province (2) (5) (6).


Drakensberg cycad habitat

The Drakensberg cycad is found in grasslands on rocky slopes and ridges, between 700 and 2,400 metres above sea level (5) (6).


Drakensberg cycad status

The Drakensberg cycad is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable


Drakensberg cycad threats

Although illegal harvesting is a significant potential threat to the Drakensberg cycad, the population is still relatively large and stable (9).


Drakensberg cycad conservation

There are not known to be any specific conservation measures in place for the Drakensberg cycad, but it is listed on Appendix I of CITES, which permits trade only under exceptional circumstances (3). In addition, this species receives protection within the game reserves and wilderness areas in the Drakensberg (5).


Find out more

For further information on the conservation of cycads in South Africa see:



This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:



The beginning of growth, usually following a period of dormancy and in response to favourable conditions. For example, the sprouting of a seedling from a seed.
A structure within the female reproductive organs of plants that contains eggs and when fertilized by pollen, develops into seeds.
To transfer pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.
Animals that in the act of visiting a plant's flowers transfer pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.


  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2009)
  2. Whitelock, L.M. (2002) The Cycads. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
  3. CITES (December, 2009)
  4. The Cycad Society of South Africa (December, 2009)
  5. Threatened Plant Conservation Unit (2004) A Management Plan For Cycads In Kwazulu-Natal. Biodiversity Conservation Advice Division, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. Available at:
  6. The Cycad Pages (2009)
  7. Jolivet, P. (2005) Cycads and beetles: recent views on pollination. The Cycad Newsletter, 28: 3-7.
  8. Donaldson, J.S. (1997) Is there a floral parasite mutualism in cycad pollination? The pollination biology of Encephalartos villosus (Zamiaceae). American Journal of Botany, 84: 1398-1406.
  9. Donaldson, J.S. (2003) Cycads, status survey and conservation action plan. IUCN/SSC-Cycad Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

Image credit

Drakensberg cycad on a hillside  
Drakensberg cycad on a hillside

© Martin Harvey / www.photoshot.com

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