Zululand Cycad ( Encephalartos ferox )

This is supposed to be one of the easiest and fastest cycads to grow. They will grow in full sun to shade but prefer shade. Cones form more often on ones in sun. There are male and female plants, both have multiple cones. Cones are a bright fiery red. Most of the time Zululand cycad looks like a broad leafed fern. Leaves are pointy when mature like holly leaves.

These are not especially cold tolerant. They will need protection the first few years they are growing. Natively they grow in frost free areas with rainfall between 35″-40″/year.

They stay compact at about a 3’x3′ spread but that takes quite a while to reach. They remain single stemmed unless damaged and the stem is not usually visible.

We saw one several years older than this one and thought it was the coolest looking fern we had seen. Turned out to not be a fern, but it looks like a cross between a fern and cycad when it gets larger. Cycads are some of the oldest known plants having been around on the planet as far back as 300 million years ago.

There are pictures of some large ones with red cones in the Hawaii photos ( follow photo link above ). They are truly gorgeous. I have great hopes for this plant now.

This plant never grew for me, not sun, not shade, it remained the same as when I purchased it for 3 years. We had several hard freezes last year and that did it in.

5 thoughts on “Zululand Cycad ( Encephalartos ferox )

  1. Despite the warnings from the gentleman who sold us this plant the cold hasn’t bothered it so far ( 27’F)

    It hasn’t grown any but we were told it was a slow grower and it may need time to settle in.

  2. Hi! I am a great lover of cycads of all types. Good notes on a not-so-very well known species. Also of note to students: Cycads are a great example of the difficulties present in the different scientific ideas of “species”, as many of the species interbreed freely despite great differences in chromosomes and general form. BTW, they have been around for somewhere around 300 million years. Apologies for babbling on, but I do like these plants.

  3. No, not at all, thanks, that’s wonderful.

    Truly amazing these plants survived for 300 million years, ice ages, global warming, floods and droughts. These guys toughed it out.

    I didn’t realize they interbreed freely. Why don’t we see more species then? Are the cross breeds mostly sterile?

  4. These are not very well studied plants, but the current hypotheses are that they either 1) diversified before plant cells evolved the structures that prevent cross-breeding (note that plants, in general, cross breed much more easily than animals, indicating that this trait is still evolving in plants), or 2) their speciation has been largely geographical. I think it is a combination of the two.

    The species, in the wild, are still widely separated geographically, and are almost all tropical. There have been 300 species or so discovered, with botanists thinking there are at least 100 – 200 species still undiscovered in tropical rainforest habitats. They are wind pollinators, so there is little opportunity, in the wild, for cross-pollination to take place.

    The cross breeds are usually viable, but, as I said, these are very poorly studied plants (the last major work done on them was in the early 1800’s, before Darwin left England on board the Beagle), so no one really knows much about their reproductive physiology or their phylogenetics beyond the basics.

    They were the dominant plant species during the Triassic and Jurassic periods, but the insect-pollinated angiosperms began to take over during the Cretaceous, and after the KT-boundary event(s), the advent of the large broad-leafed trees and the palms created a highly competitive environment in the forests, and the huge reproductive advantage of the grasses starting about 50 mya forced them out of the plains.
    So, each species is a relict population that has managed to hold on in its own micro-environment, essentially alone. The interbreeding ability is something that was only discovered once the plants were taken into captivity.
    Once again a lengthy post, but it’s hard for me to resist a question… .

  5. Thank you, I appreciate you taking the time to answer.

    So when mine get larger I might be able to take a bit of pollen from the sago or reverse depending on what sex junior turns out to be and cross breed them? That would be cool.

    It really is amazing that a plant species as old as cycads is just surviving in isolated pockets. One would think anything that survived so long would be highly adaptable and it would have adapted to other conditions as time passed or not survived at all.

    There is a similar situation with Southern Magnolias I was reading about recently. Turns out there are several species all growing in very isolated stands in the forests throughout the south eastern US. I know there are some rescue groups working on collecting them before we lose the forests.

    I was digging around online and trying to find out how to remove the blue green algae from the fish tanks and stumbled on this article recently. Jurassic plants nursery – home
    Cycas have aspecialized up-right growing tertiary root system called coralloid roots . . . which host symbiotic blue-green algae that fix nitrogen from the air. This algae produces a neurotoxin which is found in the leaves or seeds of most cycads. Species with subterranean trunks have contractile stems and roots that pull the trunks underground to protect them from forest fires. …..

    This is the second time recently I’ve read of plants moving themselves deeper into the ground if needed.

    It would seem we have a great deal to learn still about them. They are more alive than we give them credit.

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