The Phyto-Philes: The Modjadji Cycad

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Willem says: 'The Phyto-Philes are for plant lovers of every size and shape, colour and flavour. As with my Colours of Wildlife column, I'll be featuring one species per article, illustrated with sketches, paintings, and/or photos. Over time I hope to be showcasing the amazing diversity of weird and wonderful plants that occur in South Africa, while also from time to time looking at the flora of other countries. While featuring many spectacular species, I'll not be neglecting the smaller, more humble kinds that are nevertheless fascinating in their own right.'

The Modjadji Cycad

To start off this column about plants, I thought the best species to begin with would be one with multiple angles of interest, and hardly a better one can be found than the Modjadji Cycad! So first, what is a cycad?

Some of you will already know this, but cycads are a group of plants with an ancient history. The earliest species are known from the Permian, 280 million years ago, and the greatest diversity existed in the Jurassic, ranging from 190–140 million years ago. I'm not sure if dinosaurs would ever have browsed on them – their hard and spiny leaves are hardly appetizing – but they did occur with the dinosaurs. It would be unfair to call them "living fossils" though, as the ones that still survive are still undergoing evolution and are well enough adapted to their environments to still be with us. In the case of the species that are endangered, they wouldn't be endangered if we weren't destroying them or their habitats. But they are in fact still looking very similar to the ancient cycads. They seem to have formed an important part of the flora during the dinosaur age, but came to be overshadowed by later–evolving kinds like the conifers and flowering plants.

Still, cycads remain a part of our present–day floristic heritage. New species are still being discovered, and over 300 are recognized at present. Cycads also occur in a great variety of different habitats, on all continents except Europe and Antarctica. A few are adapted to scrubby semi–desert vegetation. Many occur in dry tropical and subtropical savannah or woodland. Some grow in open grassland – a few of those having small underground stems and only a few leaves emerging above–ground. Some occur in forests, from cool deciduous forests to tropical rainforests. A couple can even grow on other plants, as epiphytes. Climatically, most occur on fairly warm to hot environments, but some occur in temperate regions, a few being able to tolerate extreme cold and frost. Some grow in very poor soils, some in acidic bogs, some in salty soils. This range of habitats alone tells you that cycads are not primitive throwbacks: they can and do adapt well to many modern environments.

South Africa has a particularly rich cycad flora, of which the Modjadji Cycad is just one species. But it is a particularly fine one. Reaching a height of 13 m/42 ft, it is one of the largest of all cycads. At the end of its stout trunk, reaching a diameter of 80 cm/32", it carries a crown of leaves, each of which could reach 2.5 m/just over 8 ft in length. These leaves are divided like palm leaves, but unlike the fibrous leaves of palms, cycad leaves are stiff and hard. This species, like many others, have sharp spines along the margins of the leaflets. It can be recognized by the way the leaflets overlap with each other. Its scientific name is Encephalartos transvenosus. The genus name means 'with bread inside the head' … this refers to the starch in the stem which traditionally has been used as a food source by local peoples (which is true of many kinds of cycad all over the world). The Afrikaans name 'Broodboom' ('Bread Tree') which is used for all cycads, refers to this as well. The species name means 'with a network of cross veins' … which isn't entirely accurate, since like all related cycads this species has leaves with parallel, non–crossing non–dividing main veins. But there is a fine network of smaller veins between the main veins.

What is also remarkable about this cycad is the size of its cones. Cycads are distant relatives of conifers like pine and fir trees, and also bear cones as reproductive structures. They bear the cones at the tops of the stems, in the middle of the leaf rosettes. Male and female plants are separate. The male cones are somewhat smaller and thinner than the female cones. The Modjadji Cycad's female cones can reach a length of 80 cm/32", a width of 30 cm/12", and a weight of over 40 kg/90 lbs! The cones are orange and quite attractive. The female cones might take a year and a half to mature; sometimes there are cones from two different seasons on the same plant. When they are fertilized, seeds form with large, waxy red arils around them … the seeds emerging from under the cone scales are very pretty as well. But they are toxic! Nevertheless, they are eaten by animals like hyraxes, monkeys and baboons, squirrels, and birds like hornbills. These animals actually digest the arils rather than the seeds themselves, and play a role in distributing the seeds. Humans sometimes detoxify the seeds as well by drying or soaking, and grinding. Nevertheless some toxin might remain, which has been linked to possible diseases in humans and animals.

Let's get to the second aspect that makes these cycads interesting. The 'Modjadji' is actually a title to an entire lineage of 'rain queens' of the Lobedu people who live a bit to the east of my home town of Polokwane. The rain queens were the real–life inspiration for the 'She–Who–Must–Be–Obeyed' character in H. Rider Haggard's novel 'She'. That is a work of very imaginative fiction of course, but the real–life Rain Queens are in fact credited with supernatural powers, chiefly the ability to cause rain. This is taken so seriously that during a year in which there were bad floods in the region, and much of the entire country, the Rain Queen made an official apology!

Where the cycads come in: the royal compound of the Modjadji is situated on a hillside which receives a lot of rain and that is surrounded by quite dry land, giving the impression that she does indeed have rain–making powers. Also on this hill is the largest cycad forest in the world! Over many generations the Modjadji and her followers have been protecting and planting these cycads, and presently there are over 15 000 plants on the hill. They are all of this particular species, and it is by this and by its name closely associated with the Modjadji. Its natural distribution is centred around this particular hillside. Like most cycads in South Africa it is limited to a small region.

Outside of its natural distribution, today, Modjadji cycads are to be found in many South African gardens. They are cultivated, bought and sold on a large scale. The photo here shows me with a decent sized specimen standing in the driveway of a friend. This one must be many decades old. Like all cycads, this species grows fairly slowly compared to other trees, but nevertheless, can be an impressive specimen after a few years already. For the first decade or two of its life it will not form a visible trunk, but an impressive crown of leaves, and should thus be considered a foliage plant first of all. The trunks will start becoming substantial after a couple of decades. This species might also form 'offset' crowns near the top, as well as new plants by suckers from the base and roots of the plants. These offsets can be removed and planted. Apart from growing them from seeds, this is also a viable method for reproducing them.

Modjadji cycads are somewhat cold–sensitive but can survive light frosts. In sheltered positions they ought to be able to grow outdoors in the very south of Europe, the southern USA, and the warmer parts of Asia. In frosty climates these plants should be grown in hothouses. They grow fairly readily from seeds. These must be fertile first of all … a way to test them is to put them in water; if they float, they are likely sterile, but if they sink, they're probably fertile. The seeds should immediately after harvesting be put into soil – not covered by it, just lightly pressed into it with the top half exposed. Cycad embrios immediately start developing after fertilization, and so the seeds should not be allowed to dry out. But they shouldn't be kept too wet either, since this could cause fungal infections and rotting. Keeping the seed half exposed and the medium moist is the best tactic. They also need fairly warm conditions for growth. Germination is slow, sometimes taking a year or more, so don't give up if the seeds don't seem to be doing anything at first.

The young plants should be kept in a warm position with light shade. Adult plants can survive in semi–shade to full sun. They should be watered throughout the year but not too heavily. It doesn't like a windy situation. The soil should be very well draining, and the area at the base of the trunk, about a half a metre to a metre/yard on all sides, kept clear of other plants. They respond well to organic mulches to the soil surface, but these should be light too. After five years you'll have a nice foliage specimen with leaves of 1m/3 ft long or more. This cycad is very long living and in the wild the tallest specimens might be many centuries old. Permits are required for growing, selling and owning them. But all around this is one of the least threatened species of South African cycad.

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