Eastern Cape blue cycad (Encephalartos horridus)

Eastern Cape blue cycad cones showing seeds
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Eastern Cape blue cycad fact file

Eastern Cape blue cycad description

GenusEncephalartos (1)

With its distinctive crown of curling, entangled foliage, the Eastern Cape blue cycad is one of the most unusual and instantly recognisable of all South African cycads. Indeed, this species owes its Latin name to the bristly, prickly appearance of the leaves and its common name to their intense silvery-blue colour, especially when young (2) (4) (5) (6) (7). A low growing cycad, the stems of mature plants are often branched from the base, and typically less than one metre in length, appearing considerably shorter in areas of deep soil (2) (6). There is also a ‘dwarf’ form that is similar to the typical form in almost all aspects, except that is has a much shorter stem, shorter leaves, and smaller cones (2) (5) (6). Both sexes usually produce just a single bluish-green cone, which is egg-shaped in female plants, and cylindrical and tapering in male plants (2).

Stem length: up to 1 m (2)

Eastern Cape blue cycad biology

Cycads are long-lived, slow growing plants that always occur as individual male or female plants (4) (7). There is no way of determining the sex of a cycad until it begins to produce its first cone (7). For a long time cycads were thought, like cone-producing conifers, to be entirely wind pollinated (8). However, studies now suggest that the vast majority, if not all cycads, are actually pollinated by insects or more specifically weevils (4) (7) (8). To attract pollinators, male and female cones produce powerful odours, usually in the early morning or evening (7). 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 (7) (9).

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 (4).


Eastern Cape blue cycad range

The Eastern Cape blue cycad is restricted to the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage districts of the Eastern Cape, South Africa (2) (5).


Eastern Cape blue cycad habitat

The Eastern Cape blue cycad is found in a variety of habitats ranging from dense scrub to coarse grassland, and from deep fertile soil to shallow rocky ridges (2) (4) (5).


Eastern Cape blue cycad status

The easten cape blue cycad is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Endangered


Eastern Cape blue cycad threats

Over the past few decades, many South African cycads have become increasingly scarce in the wild, with many species now facing the very real threat of extinction. Various factors account for their decline, but the main threats include illegal harvesting for horticulture, food and medicine, habitat loss, and the spread of alien vegetation (10). Although once abundant, the Eastern Cape blue cycad has suffered significant declines due to heavy harvesting of wild specimens, while urban development has destroyed several populations (2) (5) (10).


Eastern Cape blue cycad conservation

There are not known to be any specific conservation measures in place for this Endangered species, but like all South African cycads, the Eastern Cape blue cycad is partially protected by its listing on Appendix I of CITES, which permits trade only under exceptional circumstances (3). In addition, on account of its increasing prevalence in nurseries and private collections, there is no longer such a strong incentive to poach this species from the wild (5) (6).


Find out more

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



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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.
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. The Cycad Society of South Africa (December, 2009)
  3. CITES (December, 2009)
  4. The Cycad Pages (2009)
  5. PlantZAfrica (December, 2009)
  6. Levin, M. and Loewenstein, L. (2008) Encephalartos horridus, the Eastern Cape Blue Cycad. The Cycad Newsletter, 31(1): 4-7.
  7. Whitelock, L.M. (2002) The Cycads. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
  8. Jolivet, P. (2005) Cycads and beetles: recent views on pollination. The Cycad Newsletter, 28: 3-7.
  9. 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.
  10. Donaldson, J.S. (2003) Cycads, status survey and conservation action plan. IUCN/SSC-Cycad Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

Image credit

Eastern Cape blue cycad cones showing seeds  
Eastern Cape blue cycad cones showing seeds

© Palmbob / Geoff Stein

Palmbob / Geoff Stein


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