Photo by Melody

The Encephalartos Species: THE collector genus of cycad

By Geoff Stein (palmbobFebruary 25, 2008

Most cycads are excellent landscape and potted plants choices and most tend to be sought after by thousands of collectors who love these plants (sometimes a bit too much). But all the cycad genera Encephalartos are easily the most popular and sought after (hence, the most expensive, too). All Encephalartos sepces are considered endangered (though some are actually not currently threatened) making the struggle of collecting them that much more costly and difficult. Few collectors are obsessed wtih common, 'everyday' species of plants, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that this is one of the most over-collected and prized of all the succulent plants. The following article is an introduction to most of the species one might encounter in their pursuit of learning and collecting these rare and beautiful plants.

Gardening picture 

Most all cycads are excellent landscape and potted plant choices, and most tend to be sought after by the thousands of collectors who love these plants (sometimes a bit too much).  But of all the cycad genera (see this article: ) Encephalartos are easily the most popular and sought after (hence the most expensive, too).  All Encephalartos species are considered endangered (though many are actually not threatened currently), making the struggle of collecting them that much more costly and difficult.  Few collectors are obsessed with collecting common everyday species, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that this is one of the most over collected and prized of all succulent plants.

All Encephalartos are from Africa (south, east and central).  There are about 60 or more species of Encephalartos, all which are classified as Cites appendix I plants (strict control is enforced on the sale and transport of all Encephalartos around the world), some which are essentially extinct in the wild.  Most species can be obtained in nurseries throughout the world as seedlings, but some are still extremely hard to find.  Most collectors seek older, often illegally collected plants as they are more impressive, have a better investment value and better trade value than seedlings. 

Encephalartos means ‘bread of the head' referring to the bread-like food (Kaffir Bread) that is made from the pulp of the caudex of this plants historically.  Another common name for Encephalartos are Bread Palms.  However, Encephalartos are cycads (Zamiaceae), a non-flowering group of plants that reproduces via cone and seed production (similar to how conifers reproduce).  They do look like palms, in that they have central stems topped with rosettes of pinnate leaves.  Unlike palms, cycads store water in their stems and roots similar to succulents.  Actually, cycads are succulents.  Encephalartos, like all cycads, are toxic, but the pith, if buried for several years, gets the toxins leached out of it, and then it can safely be cooked into a bread-like food (pretty expensive bread!). 

This is a variable genus with some giants and some small species, some blue-leaved, some green, some twisted, thorny wide leaflets, some narrow, needle-like leaflets, some cold hardy and some not so cold hardy, some shade loving but most sun-loving.  Cycads are dioecious, meaning there are male and female plants, and therefore one needs at least two plants to make viable seed.  Unfortunately for those growing cycads in non-native countries, the natural pollinators for Encephalartos do not exist anywhere but Africa, so the growers have to be the pollinators, too.  Pollinating cycad cones is definitely an art, but the reward of growing your own plants from seed one created is worth the efforts.

These plants, in general, are heat-loving succulents that do not like being excessively watered or shaded.  As mentioned, there are exceptions to this rule, but most species seem to prefer arid, hot climates similar to the ones they originated from.  However many do well in more humid, warm climates and few even prefer those climates.  Some of Encephalartos from the more central African countries are a bit less cold tolerant and fit in that latter category.  Most are fairly slow growing, but some are notably fast plants (fast is a relative term in the cycad world... few would call any cycads fast growers that were used to growing most other vascular plants or trees).  And, in general, most are relatively immune to insect damage and common plant diseases other than fungal rot from careless cultivation practices.  And this is one of the best and most ornamental of all the cycads for pot culture as well, most tolerating living in pots for many decades with few ill effects.

The following is a brief overview of most of the more common and some of the rarer species of this amazing genus of plants.

Encephalartos altensteinii- this is one of the most commonly grown and available species in cultivation.  It is easy and fast growing (for a cycad).  This is a green plant that has long, lanceolate leaves that end in several small but very sharp spines.  Leaves tend to be straight, not arching.  This must have been one of the first cycads available for cultivation in the US as many botanical gardens have very large, old specimens of this species, while few have any very large specimens of many other Encephalartos.  Kew Gardens in England has one that was collected in the 1700s and now has a 14' trunk.  This species seems very adaptable to both arid and humid climates.

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                   Mature plant                                                   Typical leaf form 

Image Image female cones (L) and male cones (R)

Encephalartos arenarius is a relatively common plant in cultivation and one of the faster growing of the Encephalartos, perhaps the fastest of all the ‘twisted, spiny-leaf' forms.  The leaflets of this species are typically dull green to somewhat blue green (very blue-grey leaf forms exist), wide and have a right angle twist to them along with 3-5 very sharp spines.  It is an unpleasant species to prune.  The greener forms of this plant grow well in both sun and some shade, and seem to adapt fairly well to humid climates as well as the dry, arid ones here in southern California.  The blue-leaved forms are much rarer, so more sought after and costly.  I don't know if they perform as well in humid climates.

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               Typical green form (old one on left and younger one in middle... on right female plant showing a new flush of leaves)

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                            Blue form                                                     Opening cone with infertile fruit                                                             leaf detail

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                            female cone                                                 male cone                                            female cone of blue form

Encephalartos bubalinus- this is a relatively uncommon species in cultivation though not endangered currently (too hard to get to this plant in its native central Africa).  It is a slightly smaller species with relatively straight leaves and narrow, closely spaced leaflets ending in sharp spines.  The cones of this species are almost comically large for the size of the plant.  Being from central Africa, this is not one of the more cold tolerant species and frosts can defoliate it.  It tolerates humid warm climates like Miami probably better than in California.

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                       Maturing plant                                                  Female plant in Florida                                                    Male plant in southern California

Encephalartos caffer is a very ornamental species and one of the smallest of the Encephalartos.  This is the southernmost of all the cycads growing on the very tip of South Africa.  There are two forms of this plant, one with leaflets all in the same plane, and one with leaflets in a more plumose pattern (two planes) sometimes referred to as the Hummansdorf form (less common and costlier of course).  This plant has its stem mostly underground, though sometimes collectors plant it in pots with part of the caudex above ground for looks.  This is also a fairly rare plant in cultivation, but more common than Encephalartos bubalinus (mostly due to is more appealing and unique appearance).   This is a plant that seems to be well adapted to arid climates, but I don't know how it does in humid ones.

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        Typical form in ground                            Typical form as a potted plant                                 Hummansdorf form female with cone

Image  two forms planted next to each other showing distinct leaf differences

Encephalartos cerinus is a gorgeous and rare plant from South Africa.  It has waxy, blue-green to grey green straight leaves with narrow, closely spaced leaflets (almost overlapping).  It doesn't tend to hold a lot at a time, but those it has are some of the most ornamental of all the Encephalartos.  The stems are mostly subterranean and cones look enormous for the smaller size of the plant.  This is a true collector's prize and a sought after (therefore costly) species and is fairly rare in collections.  However it is relatively easy to find for sale now and perhaps in the future the prices will come down.

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   Beautiful example of mature female in cone                     leaf detail                                                         young potted plant

Encephalartos chimanimaniensis is a hard one to spell, and also a hard one to tell apart from many of the other plants related to Encephalartos manikensis (to me, at least).  It has straightish green leaves and holds a lot of them at a time.  Leaflets are relatively ‘user-friendly'.  It was until recently a very rare plant in cultivation since it comes from a hard to get to place in central Africa and is nearly extinct.  However, recently seed has been exported in large numbers and now seedlings are more readily available... but still, large plants are very rare in cultivation.  This plant does well in more humid environments like those in Florida, but seems to do well in southern California as well and tolerates a surprising amount of frost.

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                           maturing male in cone, Florida (photo by cfkingfish)                                   seedlings for sale in AA Cycad nursery

Encephalartos concinnus is a relatively slow-growing plant from south central Africa and is another manikensis look-a-like, though perhaps a tad smaller.  It has deep green, straight leaves with closely spaced to overlapping leaflets without any sharp spines.  This is a moderately rare plant in cultivation but easily obtainable and its cost is moderate.  It tolerates some frost well.  I don't know how well it does in humid climates, but suspect it grows well.

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      several plants in southern California                               female in cone                                                       leaf detail

Encephalartos cupidus is a South African species almost too rare to mention here, but as it is one of my favorite, I will at least show a photo of it.  Many think it looks like Encephalartos eugene-maraisii, but it tends to be even smaller.  It has a modest number of straight, very keeled leaves with grey-green, relatively large leaflets with a terminal spine.  This is truly a collector's plant thanks to its ornamental looks and extreme rarity.

 Image Image Rare plants in S. California

Encephalartos cycadifolius is probably one of the slowest growing of all the Encephalartos and well known for being very finicky about being moved, often dying or taking many many years to reestablish a root system.  I had a single leaf seedling of this at my old property 10 years ago, and it is still a dinky plant.  It has very narrow blue-grey leaflets that come of the leaves in a somewhat spiral pattern.  This plant is one of the more cold hardy of the Encephalartos tolerating freezing temperatures, even snow, but does poorly in humid climates.  This is also one of the few Encephalartos that does not appear to be endangered at this time, but still fairly rare in cultivation. 

Rare adult plant Image               Image Offset showing typical twisted leaf from

Encephalartos dolomiticus is probably extinct or nearly extinct in the wild (South Africa) and is very rare in cultivation as well.  This is a relative of Encephalartos eugene-maraisii and looks a lot like one, with the upright, keeled leaves, though the leaves are often a distinctive dark blue-grey color (very ornamental!).  This is a plant that seems very well adapted to arid climates and highly intolerant of high rainfall and humidity or poorly draining soils.

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Several typical Encephalartos dolomiticus showing unusual leaf color and ornamental leaf arrangement

Encephalartos eugene-maraisii is one of the ‘type' Encephalartos many others are compared to.  This South African plant is a slow growing species with a relatively limited number of straight, markedly keeled pale green leaves with upright ovoid leaflets that end in a terminal spine.  It is another collector's plant thanks to its rarity and striking appearance.  It is very rare in the wild, but only moderately rare in cultivation (though old plants of any size are still very rare).  This is one for the arid climates, not the humid ones.  Plants require VERY well draining soils or rot easily.

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                                 Southern Californian plants                                               Plant in Hawaii with new flush of leaves

Encephalartos ferox- this is probably one of the most commonly grown and easiest of the genus, as well as one of the most rewarding and beautiful.  It is known for its amazingly red-orange cones (both male and female) that rarely fail to attract onlookers when in full glory.  But it also has deep green shiny and very interestingly spined leaflets that make it look different from most other Encephalartos species.  This is one of the few that one can grow from seed to a coning adult, in the right climate, in just 7-8 years (though I have not managed to do that).  It is also one of the few Encephalartos that prefer to be grown in partial shade (it will survive fine in hot sun, but not look as good and leaves will tend to be yellowed and burned).  There is a curled-leaf form of this species that is rare (and therefore highly sought after) that is perhaps not quite as ornamental... but rare accounts for a lot more than looks in the collecting world sometimes.  This is a good ‘starter' species for those just getting into growing cycads.  It grows well in most climates from tropical to warm temperate.

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               Typical habit of this species (both of these are female plants) 

Female cone on left, male cone on right Image Image

Image Image Normal leaf and curly leaf forms

Encephalartos friderici-guilielmi is probably the hardest of all the Encephalartos to spell or pronounce properly (and I will not begin to say I know how to pronounce it still).  This species has a unique appearance of very thin, flat, closely spaced, upright leaflets on sometimes twisted or straight leaves.  It is one of the more cold tolerant of the Encephalartos and but does surprisingly well in humid climates.  It is a relatively cheap plant though a slow grower- large plants with several feet of caudex are very old plants indeed.  It tends to be a heavy coner, making up to a dozen cones at a time (remarkable for any cycad).

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           old trunking plant                                                younger plant                                                                       male cones

Encephalartos ghellinckii is a closely related species to E friderici-guilielmi and E cycadifolius, and often gets confused with the latter.  This plant has such narrow leaflets that they are almost like pine-needles, though covered with a unique thick tomentum.  The leaves are relatively flat (compared to the twisting leaves of E cycadifolius) and a pale grey-green.  There are two somewhat distinct forms of this species. These plants are similarly cold hardy tolerating snows in their native habitat in South Africa.  This species does NOT do well in humid climates.  Like Encephalartos cycadifolius, is a tough plant to transplant.  This is a very rare plant in cultivation, being hard to move, very slow growing, and of some limited ornamental appeal to many collectors (I think it's a great looking plant for what that's worth).

     Image     Image two different forms of E ghellinckii

Encephalartos gratus is one of the Encephalartos that seems to prefer growing in a humid, tropical climate.  It is a fast growing species, perhaps the fastest of all the Encephalartos, and in tropical climates it does not take long for these plants to develop into ‘trees'.  It has very long, straight to slightly arching leaves with lancelote, relatively ‘user-friendly' light or bright green leaflets.  Female cones of this species often produce leaves of their own (very unusual in the cycad world).  E gratus prefers some shade in arid climates, but will tolerate full sun in more humid and tropical ones.  It is not one of the endangered or threatened Encephalartos.

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              Hawaiian plant                   giant plant in Florida                             Southern Californian plant

Image Image leaf detail (left) and male cones (right)

Encephalartos heenanii- this is one of the ‘holy grails' of the cycad collectors and extremely rare in collections.  It is a unique looking species with very upright, wooly leaves that swoop out a bit from the center forming a bowl shape. This is a very hard plant to cultivate often dying for no apparent reason.  And plants in cultivation seem never to produce viable seed.  It is also a tricky plant to transplant.  Established plants often go through periods of leaflessness between flushes of their unique leaves.  And of course, all this makes Encephalartos heenanii one of the most expensive and sought after of the genus.  It is nearly extinct in the wild, and unless we figure out how to reproduce it in captivity, it may become extinct completely before too long.

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    nice colony of plants in botanical garden                                in private garden                                 closer shot of leaves

Encephalartos hilldebrandtii is a species from Tanzania and Kenya where it is a bit more tropical.  And this plant does exceedingly well in humid, tropical climates... but also performs well in hot, arid ones (with perhaps a bit of shade protection in the hottest climates).  This is another relatively common and fast growing species, as well as one of the first species to be widely available (judging from the very large specimens some botanical gardens have in their collections).  This plant is one of the less descriptive species having long straight green leaves with lancelote leaflets.  Frankly it looks quite a bit like many other Encephalartos in the manikensis complex, most which have very similar leaves.

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                 large plant in Hawaii                                               Southern California plant                                                        leaf detail

Encephalartos horridus- some consider this the classic Encephalartos- spiny, blue and tough... this is a highly ornamental but dangerous plant that most cycad collections would not seem complete without.  It is a slow grower and large plants are very expensive... but it is not a rare plant in cultivation.  Some individuals have nearly white leaves.  There are dwarf forms and forms without the twisted leaflets, but most are short plants with extremely arched leaves covered with a frightening array of twisted, very sharp, stiff blue-grey to blue-green leaflets.  These make excellent potted plants as well since they grow so slowly and tend to stay relatively small.  This is not a good species for humid or tropical climates, though collectors in those climates can get them to grow and even look good, just rarely get them to cone.  They tend to struggle with excessive water supplies and seem to prefer hot arid climates.  However, the hottest, most arid climates can still be inhospitable for just about any cycad, so don't think this is a cactus.  It can burn in very hot sun, and it still needs regular water.

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                                Solitary plant                                                              Suckering plant                               plants in pots for sale in nursery

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   new leaf color above the normal mature leaves                          leaf detail mature plant                                                   leaf detail of younger plant

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               female cone                                                male cone                                            look of plant in humid climate (Florida)

Encephalartos inopinus is another rare and highly sought after species.  It is a beautiful plant from South Africa with slightly pendant pale grey-green leaflets and holding many leaves at a time.  It is not like any other Encephalartos, which is one of the reasons it is so pursued. It is a slow plant and even small seedlings can be quite costly.  Large old plants are very rare in collections. 

 Image Image southern California plants

Image Image leaf detail and cones

Encephalartos kisambo is a large plant and a popular fast growing species for landscaping.  It has light to yellow-green leaves that are very long, straight and it often holds several flushes at a time making it look quite ornamental.  This is a moderately priced plant and becoming fairly common in collections that have larger yards or plenty of room for this in a pot.  It seems to do equally well in arid and humid climates, and has some good frost tolerance.

 Image Image Maturing and seedling plants

Encephalartos laevifolius is a smaller plant with a relatively slender caudex, long, silvery blue-green to grey green leaves (two distinct color forms) with closely spaced somewhat narrow leaflets.  It is a rare plant in cultivation and somewhat costly and slow growing.  But it is not one of the ultimate, prized plants.  It tends to lose all its leaves before making new ones, so goes through periods of deciduousness, and somewhat less than ornamental at those times.  That, combined with its being endangered and seed rarely available make this one of the less common ones in cultivation.  I have no idea if it does well in humid climates, but it loves arid, sunny locations as long as given plenty of water and fertilizer.

 Image Image blue and green forms of Encephalartos laevifolius

Encephalartos lanatus is a really slow plant and large ones are many hundreds of years old.  It is a relatively common plant but not one of the more ornamental species having relatively small, drooping and/or twisted leaves with narrow, short grey-green leaflets ending in a sharp spine.  It also tends to be deciduous much of the time.  And when it has leaves, it never seems to have enough.  This is an arid-loving plant and plants in humid, high rainfall situations do not tend to do well.  It is another plant that resents moving.

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       exceptionally old individual                         'typical' sparse leaf crown                                                                  leaf detail

Encephalartos latifrons is one of the most prized of all the Encephalartos, thanks partly to its very spiny, closely spaced leaflets, but mostly due to its rarity.  This plant is very nearly extinct in the wild (South Africa) and it is very hard to find plants today, though some seed makes it into the country now and then. Even single leaf seedlings can cost a lot of money. This plant can sometimes be confused with E arenarius or E ferox.  It has bright green leaflets like an Encephalartos ferox, and they have a slight twist to them like an Encephalartos arenarius.  This is a moderately slow-growing plant and trunking specimens are very old and nearly always field collected plants.

 Image   Image older examples of Encephalartos latifrons

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    female cone (photo Alter-Ego)                                              Leaf                                                                                     leaf detail

Encephalartos laurentianus- this is a huge plant from central Africa.  The stems of this plant reportedly can get up to 45' long (not tall.. they fall over long before that).  And the leaves have been measured as long as 23' in older plants (so if leaves fall horizontal, that is a potential spread of nearly 50'!).  One should be prepared to have lots of room if they want to grow this species.  I have one in my small yard , but then I am nuts.  This species may not be the tallest of all the cycads, but probably the largest overall.  It is otherwise somewhat ‘ordinary' looking for an Encephalartos with straight green leaves with lancelote leaflets with a few terminal spines of deep green.  This is one of the faster growing species, and my own seedling is easily the fastest cycad I own.  It was at one time a nearly impossible plant to come by, but recently seed has made its way into the US in large numbers and now seedlings are relatively affordable.

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         Hawaiian seedling                                     Southern California seedling                                                 leaf detail

Encephalartos lebomboensis is somewhat non-descript species having a somewhat smaller overall size and straight leaves with very sharp leaflets (some of the sharpest of all the cycads).  Leaves are green and plants often hold many at one time.  Plants are relatively inexpensive and have lots of synonyms which some unscrupulous growers will offer as different species.  It is a very easy species to grow and does well in all warm climates, arid or humid.  This is one of the less costly species, but still a beautiful landscape or pot plant.

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                                              maturing plants, southern California                                                                 visciously sharp leaflets

Image Image Female cones (left), Male cones (right)

Encephalartos lehmannii is a beautiful plant and one of the more popular species thanks to its being readily available and a wonderful light purply-blue to pale blue or blue-green color.  There are several leaf varieties of this plant with variations in leaf length and straightness (some forms have an ornamental recurving of the leaves).  Leaves have closely spaced sharp-tipped leaflets that are flat and usually simple.  Stems rarely get over 3' tall and those would be on exceptionally old plants, so this is a good specimen species for smaller areas of the garden or for pots.  This is a commonly confused plant with Encephalartos princeps, which is similar is shape, size and leaf color/shape, though the latter tends to have slightly overlapping leaflets (in mature individuals... seedlings can be indistinguishable).  I have seen plants in Hawaii look pretty healthy and happy, but never seen a coning one in a humid, tropical climate.  This one also tolerates a good deal of frost and has few notable problems in cultivation.

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                  Looking exceptionally blue in shade                     Old colony of plants                                             Typical appearance

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                                                  examples of forms with curled-back leaves                                                                           female cone

Encephalartos longifolius is one of the most beautiful as well as ‘user-friendly' green-leaved species from South Africa.  This one has nice arching dark-green leaves with closely spaced, blunt-tipped leaflets (no sharp edges!).  It is an easy plant and does pretty well in both arid and tropical climates.  It is also relatively common and inexpensive.  I have many of these and they are easy, rewarding plants.

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      Nice older bifurcating (unusual) adult plant                              seedlings for sale at nursery                                        more typical maturing plant

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                  female cone                                               male cone                                                                  leaf detail

Encephalartos manikensis is one of the ‘type' species which is related to many of the other species listed here, and is another ‘non-descript' species with a number of synonyms (probably more than any other Encephalartos).  It is a fairly easy species to grow though it grows decidedly faster in a humid, tropical climate than in an arid one.  But otherwise it is a very easy and undemanding plant handling sun, shade, some frost, rains, etc.  Old plants are up to 3' tall, but rarely are any that large seen in cultivation.

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           plant in southern California                                                  coning plant in Florida                                                         plants for sale in nursery

Image Image Female cone on left, and Male cone on right

Encephalartos middleburgensis is one of my favorite species- sort of a ‘poor-mans' Encephalartos dolomiticus.... It is a very similar species but much more readily available (still pretty expensive, though).  Mature plants have a wonderful blue-green-purple so silver-grey color to the leaves that is unlike just about another cycad (save perhaps E dolomiticus).  The leaves are long, straight and the leaflets have a unique twist to them.  It is a moderately fast plant (once it finally gets going... seedlings can be pretty slow) and a finicky one.  It much prefers full sun and draining soil, but seems to resent moving, and can suddenly stop growing for no reason, taking a ‘break' for a few years before resuming growth.

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                                                 two adult plants in southern California                                                                             my own seedling

Image female cones of Encephalartos middleburgensis

Encephalartos misanganus is a relatively small species related to Encephalartos altensteinii but on a much smaller scale.  This makes it a great plant for smaller gardens and pots.  It does have some spiny, straight leaves which both adds to its appeal and its danger as well.  This plant is fairly slow, growing nicely in sun or shade and offers few problems in cultivation.  However it is still pretty rare and finding plants in collections is uncommon.

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                       Adult plant in garden                                                       leaf detail on younger plant

Encephalartos munchii is a nice looking species and a unique one in the manikensis group.  This plant has pale blue-green to silvery, sometimes twisted leaves with spiny-edged leaflets (both unique for manikensis-type cycads).  It is one of the less frost-tolerant species and dislikes soils that do not drain exceptionally well.  It is a full sun plant and does best in arid conditions, but manages to survive in humid climates.

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               Adult plant in botanical garden                                    Adult plants in private garden                                                       leaf detail

Encephalartos natalensis is a very common species and very similar to Encephalartos altensteinii (less spines on the leaves, to none and leaves are darker green) overall.  Many forms of this species exist, often sold as different species, so careful.  It is a fast and very easy plant to grow, as well as being cheap and highly available.  This species does not seem to care whether it is humid or arid, and even seems to be happy in somewhat poorly draining soils.  It is quite frost tolerant as well.  It is also one of the most common and affordable of all the Encephalartos

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                   old plant                                               variegated plant                                                    plant in Hawaii

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                          female cones                                                                    male cones                                                        leaf detail

Encephalartos ngoyanus is a very rare species from South Africa and one of the smallest of the Encephalartos being closely related to Encephalartos caffer, an even smaller species.  It has straight leaves with well spaced leaflets (the primary difference between this species and E caffer) with underground stem.  It is an excellent species for small gardens and for pots.  It does well in both sun and shade and is relatively frost tolerant.

 Image Adult plant in southern California

Encephalartos nubimontanus is another rare South African species, so rare that it is nearly extinct in the wild.  Almost all information about this species is based on the plants in captivity.  It is a very sought after species coming in both a blue-green form as well as a pale-green-leaved form.  Both have strongly arching, recurving leaves with long, narrow pointed simple leaflets.  Some confuse this with E lehmannii or E princeps, but the leaflets are much more spaced apart than in either of those other two species.  With luck this species will end up being propagated in cultivation to such a degree that the species will be saved. 

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  potted plants (blue and green varieties)                          garden plant So. California                                                   potted plant for sale

Encephalartos paucidentatus is another large species for larger gardens (and of course I have one in my dinky garden).  It's name describes the leaflet-shape- having a paucity of dentations (teeth).  In other words it is a relatively user-friendly species with no sharp spines on the teeth other than the terminal one which is not deadly sharp.  This plant is a relatively fast growing and easy species in cultivation, growing in both California and Flordia well.  This is a finicky plant in a pot, but does great in the ground and can grow up to 20' tall (though it will take hundreds of years to get that tall).  Leaves are straight and long (up to 8') and mature plants are impressive garden specimens.  Recently this plant has become relatively easy to find in nurseries and the price has come down considerably.

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              Mature plant southern California                                        Plant in Hawaii                                                          leaf detail of adult leaf

Encephalartos princeps is a very similar plant to Encephalartos lehmannii but having more closely spaced leaflets and more reliably pale-blue leaves.  This is a very popular species and rare, making it pretty costly, even more than E lehmannii.  Plants grown from seed develop healthy, large fat caudeces, but those grown from offsets often stay skinny and weirdly tall (like my own seedling).  But seedling grown plants are hard to come by of any size, so there is often a trade off.  This is one of the harder plants to grow well in a humid, wet climate, rarely cloning.  However even in California coning is a rarity making this one of the more difficult to propagate in cultivation.

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  garden plant southern California showing great color                               Adult female coninig plant                               younger plant grown from offset

Encephalartos pterogonus- this plant was so rare a few years ago I would have left it out of this discussion, but recently seed has come pouring into the US from Central Africa and now this plant can be fairly easily obtained (as seedlings).  It is another manikensis-type cycad that can be quite difficult to tell from Encephalartos manikensis itself.  The male cones have some unique features (nearly microscopic) that sets it apart, but I cannot tell it from some other plants easily.  It is a fairly easy and fast species to grow, though and does pretty well in both sun and some shade, and in arid or humid climates.

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      adult plant in private garden                               maturing plant in botanical garden                                               female cone

Encephalartos sclavoi is a nice looking deep green species from Central Africa with somewhat wide, overlapping ‘boat-shaped' leaflets.  It is one of the more attractive species due to this leaflet arrangement and makes an excellent landscaping species.  It is fairly cold tolerant despite its tropical origins and seems to grow fairly easily in southern California.  It is still somewhat rare in cultivation and hard to find, but not horribly expensive sort of existing under the radar for the time being.

 Image Image adult plant and leaf details of Encephalartos sclavoi

Encephalartos senticosis is a pretty common and attractive but somewhat non-descript South African species, similar in many respects to Encephalartos lebomboensis though maybe more robust.  It is a very easy species to grow, dealing well with sun, shade, and both arid and humid climates equally.

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       Coning female plant in southern California                                              Florida plant

Encephalartos tegulaneus is a large, straight-leaved, green species that grows up over 30' tall in nature, and takes up a good deal of space in the garden.  It looks sort of like a large Encephalartos hildebrandii.  This is a central African species that is exceptionally easy to grow in all types of soils, ranges of humidity and a good deal of temperature extremes, including some frost.

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                 large private garden specimen                     young botanical garden plant                                            leaf detail

Encephalartos transvenosus is one of the more popular large species and quite common in cultivation.  It grows upwards of 30' tall and grows quite fast- one of the fastest and easiest cycads to grow.  Leaves are highly ornamental having bright green, overlapping leaflets that have a slight curved, sickle shape and blunt, user-friendly tips.  It is a prolific coner and seems to always be on the verge of making cones if it doesn't already have them.  This plant seems to do well in humid climates as well as arid ones.  This is one of cheaper of the Encephalartos and good ‘starter' species for those who want a large one.

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                  adult plant                                                       female in cone                                                          male plant in cone

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                               Female cones                                                                    male cones                                                            leaf detail

Encephalartos trispinosus- for those who what a blue spiny-leaved cycad but don't want to pay for an Encephalartos horridus, this is probably the next best thing.  It is a spectacular plant just the same, but because it is a bit more common in cultivation and the leaves aren't quite as blue or twisted and vicious, it is a much cheaper and easier to afford plant (it also is a faster growing plant than E horridus).  Encephalartos trispinosus is named for its three-spined leaflets, but there are so many varieties of this species that have less or no spines that it is sometimes a difficult plant to identify.  This is good plant for hot, arid climates, but it suffers somewhat in humid and tropical climates- usually surviving, but not thriving and rarely successfully coning.

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                private garden plant                              colony of Encephalartos trispinosus in botancial garden                 unusual unforked leaf form

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                                                   two shots of leaf details of normal leaf morphology                                                        male cones

Until recently, Encephalartos turneri was too rare to bother mentioning for an overview article like this, but now seed has come out of East Africa in large numbers and plants are far less difficult to find in cultivation.  It is a medium-sized Encephalartos with unique leaflets that are slightly cupped (E sclavoi has somewhat similar leaflets) and yellow-pink cones (another characteristic shared by E sclavoi).  This is a moderately fast growing plant and a great landscape specimen for smaller gardens, planters or pots, though, with time, it can grow up to 10' tall.  Leaves are straight and between 3' and 4.5' long.  Cold hardiness seems good with little damage noted when temps dropped to 25F in my yard last year.

 Image Image Garden and sale plants of Encephalartos turneri

Encephalartos umbeluziensis is an East African species that has a mostly underground caudex, straight leaves and does best in full sun, rather than the partial shade of other Encephalartos with underground caudeces.  Cold tolerance is fair with little damage from modest frost.  It has blue-grey leaves with leaflets that curve back ornamentally.  It is a rare plant in collections so far but not one of the ‘super-rare' Encephalartos, so prices are not astronomical.

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               fairly old plant                                       seedling for sale                                                    male cones

Encephalartos villosus is another common and relatively cheap plant, and also a relatively fast grower.  This plant has a mostly underground caudex so usually looks like a bunch of leave shooting out of the ground.  Only very old plants, or artificially raised plants have a visible caudex.  This is one of the few Encephalartos that prefer shade to sun, and also a lot of water (in well draining soils of course).  Coning is frequent in this species and the cones are a brilliant yellow-orange.  Leaflets are a bright green and usually have several spines at the tip.  Older plants tend to sucker and eventually develop into a large thicket of spiny, arching leaves.  This plant grows pretty well in tropical as well as arid climates.

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                   coning female solitary plant                               older suckering mass of plant

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                  Female cone                                                   male cones                                                   leaf detail

Encephalartos whitelockii is named after Loran Whitelock, one of the most well known and knowledgeable collectors and growers of cycads there are.  It is a massive fast-growing species from central Africa and rapidly becoming a very popular landscape plant in many diverse climates, seeming to do equally well in all of them.  It has straight leaves of deep to lime green and tends to cone prolifically.  This is an exceptionally easy cycad to grow and has good frost tolerance despite its tropical origins.

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   Botanical garden plant, southern California     private garden plant (in garden of collector plant was named after)               Hawaiian plant

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                       female cone                                                                 open male cones                                                                          leaf detail

Encephalartos woodii is probably THE holy grail of the cycad world with only the wealthiest or luckiest collectors having one in their collections.  This species is basically extinct in the wild and only male plants exist.  It is also one of the most impressive species with tree-like growth up to 20' tall and carrying large arching crowns of many dark green leaves.  Leaflets of this species are uniquely shaped having a blunt curve to them at the tips and no dangerous spines (at least in maturing plants).  In an attempt to produce more of these in cultivation many have been hybridizing this species with Encephalartos natalensis and then back crossing to pure Encephalartos woodiis generation after generation in an attempt to get a ‘mostly ‘ pure female Encephalartos woodii out in cultivation.  Since cycads are not the fastest growing plants, this process will take decades to complete, if it succeeds at all.   But someday this beautiful rarity may become more available to more collectors and landscapers.

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   Famous colony of maturing palms in Santa Barbara                 Coning male plant in private garden

Image Image mature leaf detail left, and young leaves on offset, right

As one can see, the Encephalartos are all beautiful landscape plants making them one of the most sought after and prized of all ‘succulents'. 

  About Geoff Stein  
Geoff SteinVeterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.

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