Thursday, May 14, 2015

Lonely male seeks like female, age unimportant

In an amphitheatre in South Africa’s national botanical gardens at Kirstenbosch on the slopes of Table Mountain, Cape Town, is a very special garden.  One of the plants there is a very sad male.  As far as is known, the plant is extinct in nature, and there are no known females anywhere in the world that will allow the species to procreate.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Aerial walkway at Kirstenbosch

The plant in question - the lonely plant - Encephalartos Woodii, is one species of cycad that live and grow in South Africa. 

Kirstenbosch's Encephalartos Woodii

Cycads are over 300-million years old.  They outlived the dinosaurs and survived mass extinction in three global catastrophes.  There are over 300 species in the world, of which about 40 exist in South Africa. 

Another cycad species

And another

And another - don't fall into this one - the leaves are sharp spikes.

Encephalartos Woodii is named after a remarkable man, John Medley Wood, who was a merchant sailor, farmer, trader, sportsman, and botanist. He also founded the Natal Herbarium and was Curator of the Durban Botanic Gardens.

In 1895 he stumbled upon the only clump of these cycads ever found – four plants, all male.  They were on the edge of the Ngoye forest in KwaZulu-Natal on the east coast of South Africa.  Over the next twenty years or so, one of the four plants died, two were moved to the Durban Botanical Gardens, and the remaining one went to the Government Botanist in Pretoria.

Alice Notten of the Kirstenbosch gardens has this to say:

"Encephalartos Woodii is a very handsome plant.  The leaves are a dark glossy green, 2 to 2,5 metres to 3 metres long, with a gracefully arching shape, giving it a dense umbrella-shaped crown, even in young specimens.  The Kirstenbosch specimen is unbranched, but mature specimens are often branched at the crown. Encephalartos Woodii reaches majestic proportions, up to 6 metres in height with a trunk diameter of up to 90 centimetres at the base and 60 centimetres nearer the crown.  The 100+ year old specimen in the Durban Botanical Gardens has a trunk circumference that exceeds 2 metres and has an estimated mass of 2,5 tonnes."

Today, only the two original plants in Durban are still alive and, despite numerous expeditions to the Ngoye forest area, no other specimens have been found.

The original Encephalartos Woodii in Durban Botanical Gardens

It is fortunate, in a perverse way, that cuttings from the male Encephalartos Woodii can be used to grow new males.  It is now estimated that about 500 males specimens exist in different places around the world, all descendants of the original clump.  But there are no females.  Sigh.

The pollen from these cones is waiting for a fertile female.

It is interesting to take the cycad story a little further.  Most people have read about the horrendous poaching of rhinos and elephants in Africa.  This publicity has hidden the poaching of cycads, which are fewer in number and more vulnerable.  Collectors around the world are often willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for certain species, which has resulted in widespread theft.  

Even Kirstenbosch has seen raiders enter and steal cycads.  Last year in August, 24 cycads worth about $70,000 were stolen in two separate night-time incidents.  Fortunately, our lonely male, Encephalartos Woodii, wasn’t one of them.

On the other hand, the rarity of cycads also has some benefits:  Kirstenbosch legally sold a cutting from Encephalartos Woodii last year for just under $10,000, which then helps further conservation.

Today, the sale and movement of cycads is regulated under various CITES appendices.  [CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and came into force on 1 July 1975.  Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild, and it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 35,000 species of animals and plants.]  Almost all countries are signatories - but not all follow its requirements.

It takes a mind and attitude that I don’t understand to want to steal a Munch painting and hang it on one’s living room, or shoot a rhino so one can give yuppie friends something to snort at a party, or to kill an elephant so one can have ivory sculptures or jewelry.  It is obviously a similar mind that is willing to threaten the very existence of some plants for the selfish pleasure of having them in one’s own garden.

I just don’t get it!

To get back to Encephalartos Woodii, if you happen to have a female specimen growing in your garden, you could make a huge fortune by selling it on the black market or you could donate it to Kirstenbosch and save the species.

Stan - Thursday


  1. Stan, I know you and I share an appreciation of the true seriousness of Encephalartos Woodii's situation. But I'm also certain you've not missed its centerpiece potential for a Saturday Night Live skit, one for which I dare not even begin to suggest any of the many inherent, low-hanging-fruit punch lines.

    And yes, I shall look around my backyard.

  2. Much as I enjoyed this post and have great sympathy for males without mates, I think I'll stay out of this discussion of low-hanging fruit.

  3. Interesting! I didn't know about Woodii. I must pay him a visit on my next trip to Cape Town. Glad to hear that the species can continue through cuttings at least.

  4. I just loved the pictures from Kirstenbosch.

  5. I have a female specimen growing in my garden, but my wife says she's unwilling to move to Africa...

    1. Will she mind being covered in pollen?

  6. I studied at DUT. I remember the Wood story clearly. I also remember how the one got stolen. It was a legendary tale, but it has eluded the world wide web as if just an urban legend. I cant find any evidence to support my claim. But I saw where it once stood.