A field trip for Encephalartos — the cycads of South Africa
By Greg Mullins
Three weeks hunting cycads in South Africa began at the beginning of September 1997 in the Transvaal region, now known as Mpumalanga, with a visit to Loskop Dam Game Reserve. Here, a nature trail winds its way along a gorge cut into the sandstone by the Little Olifants River and provides a fantastic setting for a population of Encephalartos eugenemaraisii subsp. middleburghensis. The plants grow in the company of Erica species, Dombeya, and many composites in the tall scub grass overlooking the gorge. This population has been actively conserved for many years and is managing to reproduce. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for most of the cycad species found in South Africa.
Moving further eastwards to the Lowveld Botanic Garden near Nelspruit I had the chance to visit the third largest cycad collection in the world. The garden here is dominated not just by Encephalartos but also Zamia, Dioon, Ceratozamia and Cycas. The garden also holds a unique cycad orchard, curated by Johan Hurter, containing genotypes for each of the most threatened Encephalartos species. Johan’s brother, Mike Hurter, took me on a tour of remote cycad sites over the next two weeks which included Swaziland, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape. In total we visited 20 species of the 46 found in South Africa.
The most stunning of these included E. cupidus high up on Swadini Mountain in Mpumalanga. It is a relatively small species with no visible stem, but more than makes up for its short stature with beautiful blue-green foliage. This is one of only two populations known and constitutes less than 500 plants.This species is also very desirable to collectors but it manages to escape up here — for the time being.
The site at Modjadji in Mpumalanga is famous for its huge colony of E. transvenosus which smothers the granite hillside. An estimated 15,000 plants grow here, protected within a reserve which is governed by the local Rain Queen. The local people collect seed from the plants and have a cycad nursery in the nearby village which helps to fund the upkeep of the reserve. It also reduces poaching by making plants available to the public at a realistic price, about £2.50. With over 50,000 plants in stock this act of propagation works well for the long term protection of the species.
In Swaziland, near the Mozambique border, Mike took me to see the only colony of a newly described species. Encephalartos aplanatus is found in a gully on the Lebombo Mountains growing in the shade of Podocarpus trees and Acacia scrub. This species, which has no stem and grows to two to three metres, has been given a rating of Endangered on the Red Data List with numbers of less than 100. For it to survive into the next millennium action must be taken urgently.
In the Eastern Cape many of the cycad colonies are already protected in reserves but this does not stop poaching altogether. At Uitenhage, near Port Elizabeth, we found a population of Encephalartos horridus growing on a quartzite slope among legumes, Aloe, Euphorbia and other succulents. This silver-blue species is very attractive and has a distinctive leaf shape with many spines, hence its specific name. Despite fencing and security, plants are regularly stolen from the reserve.
Moving further west we travelled to Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve to look at Encephalartos longifolius which is found growing on the gorge overlooking the Groot River. Unusually for this year, many of the plants are coning and several females display five olive-green cones at the top of their tall, broad stems. Getting down to the plants to photograph them proved to be quite difficult through the dense Fynbos vegetation and steep valley sides.
With so many endangered and vulnerable species, a cycad action plan has been drawn up by the National Botanical Institute, with the help of other organisations. The action plan is intended to reduce the pressure on cycad populations in Southern Africa. The major threat occurs from trade in wild collected plants, which accounts for up to 60% of losses, but habitat destruction through development and agriculture, collection for medicinal purpose and natural decline are also responsible. The group has been set up to prioritise action under new legislation and law enforcement, protected area networks and sustainable use. Conservation also takes the form of ex-situ collection for the most endangered species and scientific research into biological factors limiting population growth. It is hoped that under this new action plan these fantastic plants can be saved from extinction.