Encephalartos caffer has an underground
stem but occasionally a small portion of the stem may be above
ground level. The stem resembles that of other Encephalartos
species and is covered by old leaf-bases. The stem in older
plants may be of considerable size; as much as 40cm long and
25cm in diameter. The stem is always woolly on top and is
usually unbranched. Branching occurs occasionally, probably as a
result of damage to the stem. Characteristic of this species is
its tuberous root system, consisting of numerous short, thick
The leaves of E. caffer are very
characteristic. They are 40cm to 1m in length and light green.
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. The rachis of the leaf is usually straight,
but may sometimes be curved or twisted. When the leaves are
many, the lower leaves may be spread out almost horizontally.
The petiole is about one quarter to one third, as long as the
rachis. The leaf base is covered with pale brown wool.
The pinnae at the middle of the leaf are usually 8cm to 10cm
long and approximately 1cm broad, gradually becoming narrower
from the base and ending in a sharp tip. The leaflets become
smaller towards the leaf base, eventually ending in one or two
prickles. These reduced leaves may be forked, but the other
leaflets are usually without teeth, especially in mature plants.
In young plants one or two teeth may occur on both margins.
Seedlings are characterized by up to four teeth at the tip of
the leaflet. A characteristic of E. caffer is the ruffled
appearance of the leaves, caused by the numerous, crowded
leaflets and the fact that the leaflets arise from the rachis in
different planes and may be irregularly twisted from the rachis.
Both male and female plants bear single cones
which are greenish-yellow when mature. The cones are borne on
short, thick peduncles, up to about 15cm long in the case of the
male and 7cm long in the female. The male cone itself is
approximately 20cm to 30cm long and 6cm to 12cm in diameter. The
cone is cylindrical, but becomes narrower towards its tip. The
male cone has a number of spirals of roughly triangular scales.
At the middle of the cone the scales are about 3cm long and
2,5cm broad at it's widest end. The faces of these median scales
are slightly projected to form beaks, 5mm to 6mm long, with the
lower margin sometimes toothed. The whole of the under-surface
of the scale, except for the narrow end, is covered by sporangia
- small sacs in which the yellow pollen is formed.
The female cones are up to 30cm long and 15cm
in diameter. The cone is more or less cylindrical but becomes
narrower towards the rounded tip. The scales are arranged in 6
to 8 spirals. The scales at the middle of the cone are
approximately 5,5cm long and 5,5cm wide at its widest part. The
scale is about 3,5cm thick and ends in a flat face. The rim of
this flat surface is slightly raised and the lower margin
projects somewhat and may be irregularly toothed. On top of each
female cone scale two seeds are formed, each up to about 3,8cm
long and 2,5cm in diameter. The fresh seed is bright red or
scarlet in colour and glossy in appearance. Occasionally pale
pinkish-yellow seeds are found. .
Distribution & Habitat
E. caffer occurs in the Eastern Cape Province
in the districts of Humansdorp, Albany, Bathurst and East London and in the
former Transkei in the district of Kentani, as far east as Willowvale. E.
caffer grows in the coastal belt, usually in sour grassveld, where plants
are often difficult to see in the surrounding grass. It is often found growing
amongst rocks. This may be the result of the protection offered by the
surrounding rocks against the effects of veld fires on young plants. The
rainfall in its distribution range varies from about 1,000 mm per year at the
coast to 750 mm and less further inland. The summers in these areas are hot and
no frost occurs. Rain in the north-western parts of the distribution area occurs
mainly in summer. In the Humansdorp district it is more evenly spread, with some
winter rain and fairly dry summers.
Although specimens of E. caffer occur close
to some other species, for example
E. trispinosus, in the Grahamstown and Bathurst areas, no signs of
hybridization have been reported.
Cultivation & Propagation
E. caffer grows well in cultivation. If
mature plants are transplanted, it may take a few years for new leaves to form.
Such mature plants should be planted with the top of the stem below ground
level. The soil should be well-drained, slightly acid and rich in organic
matter. Well-established plants should receive enough water. Plants may be grown
in full sun or light shade. They are fairly resistant to frost, although frost
seldom occurs in their natural habitat. E. caffer is very attractive when
planted amongst well-placed, natural-looking rocks. Plants in cultivation cone
regularly and propagation by seed is easy.
E. caffer was botanically
discovered by the Swede,
Carl Peter Thunberg. Thunberg was a
student of the famous
Carl Linnaeus, professor in botany at the
University of Uppsala in Sweden. He visited the Cape of Good
Hope between April 1772 and March 1775 and travelled the country
extensively. He started the longest of his journeys into the
interior at the end of 1772, a journey which took him as far as
the present Coega, near Port Elizabeth. On this journey he was
accompanied by a Scotsman, Francis Masson, who was a gardener at
the Royal Gardens at Kew in England. He was sent to the Cape of
Good Hope by Sir Joseph Banks, scientific advisor of Kew, to
collect plants and seeds for the gardens. During this journey,
probably in the vicinity of the present Kareedouw, Thunberg came
across the cycad which is now known as
In the same vicinity, probably closer to the present Humansdorp,
he also noticed small cycads but thought them to be young plants
of the same kind as the tall-growing ones. It is evident from
his later descriptions that the small plants were the cycads we
now know as E. caffer. Like E. longifolius, E.
caffer has had it's fair share of different names, mainly
resulting from Thunberg's mistake in thinking that the tall and
the short plants he saw were of the same species. When he first
saw the tall plant, he thought it was a species of palm and
called it Zamia caffra. In his description he made use of
material collected from both the tall and the short plants and
his record therefore contains features of the present E.
longifolius and E. caffer.
In 1834, when he introduced the
genus name, Encephalartos, Lehmann simply changed
Thunberg's Z. caffra to E. caffer. In 1836 Lehmann
also described a species which he called E. brachyphyllus
and which corresponded to the present E. caffer. In 1933
J. Hutchinson and G. Rattray finally sorted out the name problem
and distinguished between E. caffer and E. longifolius.
E. brachyphyllus was at the same time reduced to E.
and Stangeria eriopus
were the first Cape cycads to be declared endangered species by
the Cape provincial nature conservation authorities. In certain
areas, especially where it grows in easily accessible terrain,
the numbers of E. caffer have been severely depleted by
collectors. In some areas, in the Humansdorp and Albany
districts, large numbers were destroyed when farmers ploughed
the land for the planting of wheat and other crops. Fortunately
a few viable colonies occur on state-owned land, where the
plants are protected. Probably the largest colony occurs in the
Cape provincial cycad reserve near Grahamstown, where the plants
are inspected regularly and where many seedlings can be seen
amongst the mature plants. It seems, therefore, that E.
caffer is in no immediate danger as a species.
Full Sun to Light shade
Habitat photo 1
Habitat photo 2
References & Acknowledgements
- Encephalartos Vol 3: Focus on Encephalartos caffer
- Maans Kemp
- Female Cone, Habitat photo 1/2, Renier Smit