Dwarf cycad (Encephalartos humilis)

GenusEncephalartos (1)
SizeLeaf length: 30 - 50 cm (2)
Stem height: 0.3 m (2)
Stem diameter: 20 cm (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU A2acd; C1) on the IUCN Red List 2003 (1). Listed in Appendix I of CITES (3).

Cycads are members of an ancient group of plants that are known to have pre-dated the dinosaurs, occurring in the Permian era, more than 200 million years ago (4). Although cycads were once very widespread, today they are greatly reduced in range and numbers (4). The 250 or so species that survive today are ‘living fossils’, the last representatives of a group of great evolutionary significance (5) (4). The name of the genus Encephalartos means ‘bread in the head’, and was given to these plants as some of the species contain starch in their seeds and stems (5). Cycads have divided leaves reminiscent of palms or tree-ferns, but this similarity is only superficial, as cycads differ greatly in terms of structure and biology (4). Cycads are woody plants, but they have a thick, soft stem or trunk that contains very little true wood, but comprises mainly of storage tissues (4).

The specific name of the dwarf cycad, humilis, means humble or lowly, referring to the diminutive size of the plant (2). This dwarf species has a very short ‘trunk’ and twisted dark green leaves that are composed of smooth-edged individual leaflets (2). Plants are either male or female. In male plants, brown, narrow pollen cones are produced from modified leaves, the undersides of which feature many pollen sacs (2) (5). In female plants, the reproductive organs are also derived from leaves and take the form of brown ‘seed cones’ (2) (5).

Found in the Eastern Transvaal Province of South Africa (2).

The dwarf cycad grows in grasslands, typically on slopes with sandy soils or over sandstones (2).

Cycads are generally slow-growing and long-lived plants (4). All cycads posses ‘coralloid’ (meaning coral-like) roots. These roots contain symbiotic cyanobacteria that fix gaseous nitrogen from the atmosphere and provide essential nitrogenous compounds to the plant. This can be a great advantage, as many cycads grow in nutrient-poor habitats (4).

Until recently, it was generally thought that cycads were wind-pollinated, however many species are now known to be pollinated by insects (4). Cycads produce relatively large fleshy seeds, which are attractive to a range of animals that help to disperse them (4).

Many cycads are attractive to horticulturalists and landscape gardeners in areas with a warm climate; they are also popular as container plants (6). Collection of seeds from wild plants and the collection of whole plants is a serious problem (1) (6). A further threat is habitat loss and degradation as a result of human activity (1). As cycads are slow-growing and relatively long-lived, they have slow population turnover. The removal of plants from the wild therefore has serious implications, as it can take a long time for populations to recover (4).

International trade in the dwarf cycad is tightly controlled by the listing of the plant under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (3). However, harvesting of the plant for local and international trade continues (1).

The Cycad Pages – Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney:

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:

  1. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2003 (March, 2004)
  2. Encephalartos humilis – The Cycad Pages – Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney (March, 2004)
  3. CITES (March, 2004)
  4. The Cycad Pages – Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (June 2010)
  5. Lötscher, W. and Beese, G. (1983) Collins Photoguide to Tropical Plants. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  6. Sandison, M.S., Clemente, M., de Koning, J. and Sajeva, M. (1999) CITES and Plants: a User’s Guide. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.