General Info

This dioecious Tree is up to 4m x 45cm.  Many stems may arise from the base.  Pinnately compound Leaves are up to 2m long.  Lowest leaflets reduced to prickles.  The female Cones are up to 60 x 20cm.  Large Seeds are red.


Encephalartos longifolius, Zamia longifolia

RSA Tree No. 9.

Common names: Suurberg Cycad, Breadpalm, Broodboom, Thunberg’s Cycad.

Family:  This is a family of perennial cycads has 8 genera and about 200 species.  They are only superficially palm or fern like.  The cycad tap Root is soon replaced by lateral roots, which become woody.  Cycads have coralloid roots that contain symbiotic cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that fix atmospheric nitrogen in association with root tissue and produce important amino acids for the plant.  Stems are cylindrical and southern African species do not have persistent leaf bases.  All are evergreen with pinnately compound Leaves.  The Leaflets have parallel (or nearly so) veins.

Name derivation: Encephalartos: within-head-bread: referring to the starchy bread that can be made from the pith of the inner trunk.  longifolius: with long leaves.

The genus Encephalartos includes some of the most primitive living Gymnosperms.  Unlike other members of the family Zamiaceae, species in the genus Encephalartos have leaflets that lack a central Midrib (vein).  Diamond shaped leaf scars remain on the trunk.  The hard prickly leaflets do not bend easily.  The sunken leaf veins are parallel or almost so.  Stomata are present on the lower surface and may occur above.  All species are dioecious with male and female Cones on separate plants.  These cones develop in the centre of the leaf whorls.  At maturity, the Seeds are released when the Female cones disintegrate.  All species produce poisonous glycosides (cycasins).  The African plants in the genus Encephalartos include about 66 species and there are about 30 species are in southern Africa.

Conservation Status: N T. (Near Threatened). 2009.10.31.  This is mainly due to illegal collecting.


This Tree has an almost erect, seldom branched Stem up to 4m high.  It is often very thick (30-45cm in diameter) with a very large pith.  Many stems can arise from the base.  They are woody, almost palm-like, trees.


Cycads are unique Gymnosperms with compound Leaves.  These leaves are pinnately compound (leaflets arranged along either side of the leaf rachis, the central stalk, like a feather).  Young leaves are only initially hairy.  Mature leaves are dark or metallic, slightly glossy green with a grey bloom and are up to 2m long.  The bright yellow Rachis (main axis bearing flowers or leaflets) arches especially towards the end.  The Petioles (leaf bases) remain on the tree for a short while after the leaves have fallen.  Leaves are persistent and last for 3-4 years.  Leaflets are lanceolate, broad and up to 20 x 4cm.  Either leaflets overlap slightly or they are slightly spaced apart.  They are arranged upwards in a V formation.  The leaflets all have parallel Veins.  The Apex of the leaflet may be sharp tipped or rounded.  The Margin is usually entire (with a continuous margin, not in any way indented) but some prickles may appear on the margins of those situated on the lower leaflets.  The lowermost leaflets may be reduced to 1 or 2 prickles.


The tree is Dioecious (having male and female cones on separate plants).  There are up to 3 greenish-brown Male cones which are cylindrical and may reach 60 x 20cm.  Male cones produce motile sperm.  Usually 1 ovoid Female cone with naked ovules is produced.  Each is big, up to 60 x 40cm and among the largest and heaviest of the cycads – certainly the heaviest in the RSA, with a mass of up to up to 36kg.  They are olive green.  Beetles pollinate the plants.  (Apr-Jun).  Naked bright red Seeds are about 5 x 2,5cm.

Gymnosperms have unenclosed or naked seeds.  They have no flowers or fruit and the seeds are often contained in cones.  In the Angiosperms (flowering plants), the seeds are enclosed in an ovary.  In the Gymnosperms, there are 2 modes of fertilization.  In all the Cycads (including Encephalartos) and the single extant (not extinct) species of Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), the male cones produce motile sperms.  The remaining members of the Gymnosperms all have non-motile sperm with no flagella and are moved along with a Pollen tube to the egg.

Distribution & Ecology

This tree is Endemic (endemism is the ecological state of a species being unique to a defined geographic location, such as an island, nation, country or other defined zone, or habitat type) in the RSA.  This tree was first recorded in 1772.  Trees are usually found on steep rocky slopes and dense thickets in fynbos (is a belt of natural shrubland or heathland in the winter rainfall area with the distinctive vegetation of the Western Cape) vegetation.  The trees are also found in the Eastern Cape up to an altitude of 1 500m e.g. near Grahamstown and near Van Staden’s Flower reserve (40km west of Port Elizabeth) and the Suurberg mountains.  View on the old road from Ann’s Villa to the Zuurberg Inn (GPS Co-ordinates: S 33˚21′.071″ / E 25˚44′.674″). Trees are very slow growing and can survive in rainfall, which varies between 300 to 1 200mm.  This and E. lehmannii occur further west than most cycads.  It may hybridise with Encephalartos horridus.  Birds like hornbills as well as rodents, monkeys and baboons disperse the Seeds.  They consume the outer covering and the seeds are discarded.  (Oct-Dec).


This was the first cycad seen by early colonists.  Seeds are Poisonous.  Seeds eaten by general Smuts nearly killed him and others in his commando during the Anglo Boer War 1892-1902.  Seeds are the main method of propagation but gloves should be worn when handling the seeds.  A plant with a caudex (stem) of 13cm currently sells in the USA for about $800.


Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of Southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.

Lawrence, G. H. M, 1951. Taxonomy of Vascular Plants, The Macmillan Company, New York. Tenth Printing 1965.

Palmer, E. & Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa, Balkema, Amsterdam, Cape Town.