Eastern Cape dwarf cycad (Encephalartos caffer)

Eastern Cape dwarf cycad
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Eastern Cape dwarf cycad fact file

Eastern Cape dwarf cycad description

GenusEncephalartos (1)

This rare plant typically has an underground stem, with a small portion on top, the stem is only very rarely branched and may be as much as 40 cm long (2). Emerging from the top are long, pinnate, dark green leaves up to a metre long. These often have a distinctive ruffled, feathery appearance, caused by the numerous, clustered leaflets being irregularly twisted from the central stalk and pointing out in different directions (2) (4). New leaves are brown and woolly at first but most of the hair is lost as they mature, although they never become completely smooth or glossy. Both male and female plants bear single reproductive cones made up of a series of spiraled scales, which become greenish-yellow when mature. In the female, two largish, glossy, scarlet-coloured seeds are formed on top of each cone scale (2).

Stem length: up to 40 cm (2)
Stem width: up to 25 cm (2)
Leaf length: 40 – 100 cm (2)
Cone length: up to 30 cm (2)
Cone width: up to 15 cm (2)
Seed length: up to 3.8 cm (2)

Eastern Cape dwarf cycad biology

Cycads are dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female plants, and the female produces seeds while the male produces pollen. Plants of this taxon have generally been considered to be wind pollinated, but several recent studies suggest that insect pollination is more likely. The seeds produced are typically large with a hard, stony layer (sclerotesta) beneath a fleshy outer coat (sarcotesta), attracting animals such as birds, rodents and small mammals, which serve as dispersal agents. In most cases, the fleshy coat is eaten off the seed rather than the entire seed being consumed. Cycads are long-lived and slow-growing, with slow recruitment and population turnover (6).

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 (6).


Eastern Cape dwarf cycad range

Approximately 10,000 mature individuals are confined to the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa (1).


Eastern Cape dwarf cycad habitat

Found in the coastal belt and up to 100 km inland, usually growing in grassveld but also occurring in adjacent bush, possibly due to shifting boundaries caused by veld fires (2) (5).


Eastern Cape dwarf cycad status

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List 2007, and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened


Eastern Cape dwarf cycad threats

The Eastern Cape dwarf cycad was one of the first three Cape cycads to be declared endangered by the Cape provincial nature conservation authorities. Collectors have seriously depleted numbers in certain areas, particularly in easily-accessible terrain. Large numbers have also been destroyed by conversion of land to agriculture, such as in the Humansdorp and Albany districts (2).


Eastern Cape dwarf cycad conservation

A few viable colonies are protected on state-owned land, and a large colony occurs in the Cape provincial cycad reserve near Grahamstown, where plants are regularly inspected. Here, many seedlings can be seen amongst the mature plants, and the species therefore seems to be in no immediate danger of extinction (2).


Find out more

For more information on the Eastern Cape dwarf cycad see:



Authenticated (17/09/07) by Dr John Donaldson, Chief Director of Conservation Science, Head of Kirstenbosch Research Centre, South African National Biodiversity Institute.



A group of bacteria that is able to photosynthesise and contain the pigment chlorophyll. They used to be known as ‘blue-green algae'. They are thought to have been the first organisms to produce oxygen; fossil cyanobacteria have been found in 3000 million year old rocks. As they are responsible for the oxygen in the atmosphere they have played an essential role in influencing the course of evolution on this planet.
Male and female flowers are borne on separate plants.
In plants, a compound leaf where the leaflets (individual ‘leaves’) are found on either side of the central stalk.
Symbiotic relationship
Relationship in which two organisms form a close association, the term is now usually used only for associations that benefit both organisms (a mutualism).
An open grassy plain.


  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2007)
  2. Cycad Society of South Africa (December, 2006)
  3. CITES (October, 2006)
  4. Jurassic Garden (December, 2006)
  5. Donaldson, J. (2007) Pers. comm.
  6. Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney – The Cycad Pages (December, 2006)

Image credit

Eastern Cape dwarf cycad  
Eastern Cape dwarf cycad

© Palmbob / Geoff Stein

Palmbob / Geoff Stein


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