Encephalartos caffer
(Thunb.) Lehm.

Family : Zamiaceae
Common names : Grahamstown cycad, Rhini cycad (Eng.); kafferkie (Afr.); uMphanga wase Rhini (Nguni)

Encephalartos caffer

Encephalartos caffer is a relatively rare dwarf cycad in the sour grassveld of the Eastern Cape Province. It appears to be closely related to another grassland dwarf cycad, E. ngoyanus in KwaZulu-Natal. The leaves of E. caffer are a leathery light green and the leaflets untoothed, compared with the dark green, soft foliage and toothed leaflets of E. ngoyanus. Despite its scarcity in the wild, E. caffer is easily grown from seed and grows well in a protected garden situation.

Encephalartos caffer is a single stem cycad with a woolly crown, the whole plant, including leaves, rarely higher than 1.2 m. The underground stem is 350–400 x 250 mm. The leaves are light green and are initially very woolly on a straight leaf stalk. The median leaflets are 80–100 x 10 mm. Mature leaflets are entire but juveniles have a few marginal teeth. Subcylindric solitary cones appear in July, turning greenish yellow at maturity. The male cone narrows to its apex and is 200–300 x 60–110 mm. The female cone is about 300 x 150 mm, only slightly narrowed towards the apex. The seeds are a glossy scarlet, up to 38 mm long. Occasionally, pale pinkish yellow seeds are found.

Encephalartos caffer female cone
Encephalartos caffer foliage

Conservation status
Encephalartos caffer is rare, particularly in the western part of its distribution. All cycads are threatened and are protected under the CITES regulation (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)—for more information visit www.cites.org. According to the IUCN specialized cycad group, E. caffer is Near Threatened.

Encephalartos caffer growing in habitatDistribution and habitat
Encephalartos caffer occurs in coastal belt grassland, often among rocks, in the districts of Humansdorp, Albany, Bathurst and East London, in the former Transkei in the district of Kentani, and as far east as Willowvale. Sensitive to frost, it is used to hot summers and an annual rainfall of up to 1 000 mm at the coast but survives further inland where rainfall is 750 mm or less.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
Encephalartos is derived from the Greek word meaning within-head bread, referring to the traditional use of the bread-like starchy substance from the plant stem pith. The specific name caffer refers to the Eastern Cape area originally known as Caffraria (from the Arabic word kfir, meaning heathen or infidel), used by early colonialists for the area occupied by the indigenous inhabitants. Dyer (1965) records that E. caffer was one of the first two species of cycads collected by Swedish botanist Carl Thunberg in 1772. He was travelling towards Coega (near Port Elizabeth ) accompanied by the English plant collector and gardener, Francis Masson. He collected a tree cycad as well as a dwarf cycad and considered them to be forms of the same species which he described as Zamia caffer. They were later separated by Hutchinson & Rattray as E. longifolius (the arborescent species) and E. caffer (the dwarf species).

Encephalartos caffer grows in rocky grassland slopes and is well adapted to fire. 

Uses and cultural aspects
There are no known specific recorded traditional or cultural uses for Encephalartos caffer.

Encephalartos caffer seedlings

Growing Encephalartos caffer

Encephalartos caffer is easily grown from seed. Hand pollination is necessary for a successful seed harvest in cultivation. Pollen can be collected as soon as the male cones begin shedding (if a light tapping of the male cone produces pollen then the cone is ready to harvest). Store the collected pollen at minus 15ºC for best results. The female cone has to be monitored to check when the scales open. The window of the scale opening varies from plant to plant, and may last from three days to two weeks. We have achieved a good pollination rate at Kirstenbosch using the wet method (pollen mixed with distilled water and applied by syringe).

After the female cones have been collected, the seed is left to mature for a year before sowing at the beginning of summer. For best results, sow seeds in river sand on a heated bench at 24–28ºC. Germination should start three weeks after sowing, but may sometimes take longer. Special care: it is relatively slow growing and takes time to recover from relocation and transplanting. Leaves and cones are prone to scale and mealy bug. At Kirstenbosch we feed each plant with a nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K) mixture of 3:1:5, as well as bone meal and an organic fertilizer (Bounce back®) each spring. We also add a generous helping of compost at regular intervals during the year.

References and further reading

  • Donaldson, J.S. (ed.). 2003. Cycads. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. UCN/SSC Cycad Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
  • Dyer, R.A. 1965. The cycads of southern Africa. Bothalia 8: 405–515.
  • Dyer, R.A. & Verdoorn, I.C. 1966. Zamiaceae. Flora of southern Africa 1: 33.
  • Giddy, C. 1974. Cycads of South Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
  • website: http://www.cycadsociety.org/caffer/caffer.html.
  • website: www.cites.org.


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Phakamani M'Afrika Xaba
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
July 2009





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