Imagine being the last human left alive. You’re a male and tragically the last female homo sapien has perished. The universe hasn’t been kind to your species, and unfortunately sexual means of reproduction has been comprised.
This is how the Encephalartos woodii cycad must have felt before an unsuspecting botanist stumbled upon the plant on a fateful day in 1895. Discovered on a South facing slope on the edge of the oNgoye forest in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa by John Medley Wood, this plant is truly a rare specimen.
After realizing the importance of his find, J. Medley Wood journeyed back to the site to collect two stems along with some pups and bring them back to Durban Botanic Garden, where he held the role of plant curator. The specific epithet and common name now bear John Medley Wood’s name because of his foresight.
It’s rarity can be attributed to the fact that the Wood’s Cycad is a dioecious species, which means it has female and male reproductive parts on two separate plants. Without the female plant, the pollen from the male cones has nothing to pollinate and the plant is left at the mercy of asexual reproduction. This is a lonely existence wouldn’t you say?
The discovery and the subsequent human intervention allowed this cycad species to persist through asexual propagation of its pups (smaller plants that grow at the base of the mother plant).
By the early 1900’s, it was pretty certain Encephalartos woodii was extinct in nature and the propagation of its male pups was the only viable method of perpetuating the existence of this species. Durban Botanic and Wood’s distributed basal offsets of the main plant to several institutions.
Kew Gardens received one offset in 1899 and three more were planted at Durban Botanic in 1903. Another specimen was received at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland in Glasnevin in 1905 and by 1912 there was only one nine foot Wood’s Cycad left in the wild.(3)
That particular plant was moved by the Forestry Department to the Government Botanist in Pretoria where it eventually died in 1964. Currently there are an estimated 500 specimens that were propagated from the original plant. Some of the best specimens of the Wood’s Cycad can be seen at the following gardens.
The Encephalartos woodii that has a special place in my heart is the one located at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. As a student in Longwood’s Professional Gardening program, I am privileged to see one of the last remaining Wood’s Cycads in the world on a regular basis.
Longwood Gardens acquired the Wood’s Cycad per request of the former director Dr. Russell Seibert to Durbin Botanic Gardens. The rooted plant was received in 1969 and immediately taken to the Longwood research department where it was studied and nurtured until it was put on display.
The current head gardener of the conservatory, Karl Gercens, has called this plant, “The King of the Conservatory”, which is a very appropriate title. As soon as you enter the main entrance, the Wood’s Cycad gracefully catches your eye. It’s form is formidable and stands out among other plantings in the East Conservatory.
While walking past the specimen I have a tendency to tread a little slower; it commands attention, respect, and stimulates thoughts of fate, perseverance and evolution.
The Encephalartos woodii is a primitive plant evolutionarily speaking, having changed little since the Jurassic period. In fact, it has survived three mass extinction events! This makes it hardy in zones 0-99 (kidding) and is also the oldest seed-bearing plant on the planet.
Instead of flowers the Wood’s Cycad and all other plants in the three cycad families produce cones. This is the most prevalent characteristic that will help you differentiate between a cycad and a palm.
Other distinguishing characteristics include dark glabrous pinnately arranged leaflets on mature specimens that are attached to downward arching leafs up to 9.5 meters long, giving it the appearance of a dense umbrella-shaped crown. Mature Wood’s Cycads like the 100 year old specimen at Durbin Botanic Gardens can reach heights of 6 meters with a trunk circumference of 2 meters!
Another unique feature of the E. woodii is the stark difference between the juvenile and adult life stages of this plant. A younger plant has spines on the leaflets and secondary roots that resemble parts of a coral reef called coralloid roots. These roots replace the tap root of the seedling plant and are assisted through underground stems that support and anchor the trunk.
I got the opportunity to see a young pup up close and personal still growing in its immature state at a top secret location. They truly are a captivating plant, especially when the greenhouse is covered in snow! You can see the spines on the juvenile leaflets and if you look closely you can see coralloid roots popping up from the potting media.
Cycads as a group are a very sought after item on the black market. Like animal poachers, plant poachers value protected species and sell them to careless plant collectors. Organizations like the Green Scorpions are fighting for the prized cycads. Their courageous efforts can be seen in this short film.
The survival of these species is not only important for ecological reasons, it has scientific implications that can impact human health. Researchers are studying the amino acid cycads produce, B-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA), and its relation to neurodegenerative disorders. Understanding why cycads produce this neurotoxin without succumbing to its effects can lead to treatments of these disorders.(4)
In addition to guarding the native habitat of cycad species from human activities like poaching, poor agricultural practices and strip mining, efforts are being made to revive the female species of the Wood's Cycad by reverse engineering the genetic line through cross pollination of its closest relative Encephalartos natalensis.(3)
Preserving these ancient relics should be just as important as ensuring our endangered animals are protected. Without native flora, the native fauna will undoubtedly suffer. To become more involved and aware of the issues surrounding cycad conservation, visit these organization's websites.