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Zamiaceae, Encephalartos altensteinii – Kew Botanical Gardens, England

March 21, 2012

This is a photo of Encephalartos altensteinii (below), a Cycad from the Eastern Cape of S. Africa. It is the oldest plant at Kew Botanical Gardens (thought to be the oldest potted plant in the world), collected from the wild by Kew’s first plant hunter Francis Masson in the early 1770s. The specimen arrived at Kew in 1775 and has lived there ever since. At a growth rate of approximately 2.5 cm a year, the cycad is now 4 meters and 40 centimeters, weighing over a ton.In the wild the plant can grow up to 7 meters, some branching, some not.

Interestingly, the name Encephalartos, derived from Greek, means ‘bread in the head’, making reference to the Hottentots’ practice of removing the pith from the cycad’s stem, burying it in the ground for 2 months, and then digging it up and kneading it into bread dough and baking it in embers. In Zulu the plant is called uJobane. The species is widespread on the Eastern Cape as well as the south-western Natal provinces of South Africa. It favors sites near the coast including open scrub, steep rocky slopes, evergreen forests in valleysand river banks. It also occurs inland at a higher altitude in isolated sites in the Amatola Mountains.

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