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Encephalartos ferox Bertol. f.: A Clockwork Orange (with profuse apologies to Anthony Burgess)  Viddy this, O my brothers and only friends:

The world of collectible primitive plants is dominated by the cycads, and the most horror show of them all are the coveted creatures of the uniquely African genus, Encephalartos Lehm. While most are well-mannered and zammechat,  truly non-vicious and NON-violent in their ways, several species from the eastern Cape and Mozambique have leaves that bite and leave the unwary bruised and mutilated from close contact.

Their Latin binomials, denoting “fierce”, “dreadful” and “three-spined” speak to their spiky defensive armor.  Plants for the trembling, fawning and faint-hearted, my little "droogies," they are not.


(Encephalartos horridus leaf detail)

In the nachinatovat, enter the Zululand or holly-leafed cycad, Encephalartos ferox Bertol. f.. for a needed bit of the old ultraviolence in the WebJungler’s domy’s garden. This species occurs from northeastern Kwazulu Natal along the coast of Mozambique, north at least as far as the province of Zambézia. The northern population, known in horticulture as the curly-leafed cycad, or ‘Chongoene ferox’, is distinct from the main populations further south. 

Chongoene is town on the Atlantic Ocean and is located in north-central Mozambique. This ecotype may warrant full species status when the nabobs have had a chance to viddy its nasty bits and pick at its bones if the vile prestoopniks raiding the wild populations for bugatty foreign collectors leave them any over for picking. Some coastal populations of this cycad may occur on sand dunes adjacent to beaches, but are usually found growing in the shade of scrub forest behind the dunes. In Kwazulu Natal they also occur in evergreen low veldt.

 While usually acaulescent and solitary and having largely subterranean stems, older plants in the wild and in cultivation, particularly the Mozambican ecotypes, may develop trunks to over 6’ (2.0 m) tall and sucker freely at their base. The leaves are stiff and arching, to over 6´ (1.9 m) long, and with heavily armed leaflets that are stiff, wide and glaucous in the most commonly-cultivated ecotype (hence “holly-leaf” cycad, which also has all-green forms), and narrow, tubular and bright green in the Chongoene population. Total canopy spread may exceed 9’ (3.0 m), and may be attained in less than a decade from seed germination.

Unlike most cycads, this species is notable for being quite fast-growing in cultivation and possessing very showy cones. Pan-handled and spectacular they are! Ranging in color from eggiweg yellow to the deepest vino, vino red, they will cause the chaste viewer to gasp, hear angel trumpets and devil trombones.

   (Photo taken at Montgomery Botanical Center, Miami, FL)   


You are definitely invited, droogies.

A 12 year-old seed-grown plant in my garden decided to cone during May of this year. When the apex first dilated, I assumed that it was going to flush a new set of leaves, even though a cone needed to determine its gender (cycads are dioecious) was overdue. At long last, it made its appearance.

Welly, welly, well. “To what do I owe the extreme pleasure of this surprising visit?”  I thought. At first glance it looked fat and round, but then suddenly of the chelloveck persuasion it was revealed to be, but rather tired and pale when the curtain first rose on this cycad bounty. When I enquired from a droog who grows them in south Florida, and who is much omnier in such matters than I,  whether I should expect the color of the cone to intensify as it matured, he couldn’t say where it was vetted.

After several weeks of breathless expectation, the shlaga-shaped cone colored up skorrily and, my fondest droogs, began to rapidly get bushier, as it readied its pollen clouds. Like some great Martian marital aid it seemed to me. When finally good and ready for a bit of the old in-out, the cone measured 26” (66 cm), including a 4” (10 cm) peduncle nestled well down amongst the leaves. Pollen being shed here:


"It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen." As many times as I have viddied  the horrorshow cones of Encephalartos ferox in others collections, it’s the photos in the books and on the computer that make the colors seem so very, very washed out.

As and aside, as gloopy as this might seem to anyone with a gram of common sense, current CITES regulations restrict movement of pollen of Appendix I plant species (= all Encephalartos species) between signatory states. While reasonable folk may debate the pros and cons of permitting free trade in seed of CITES App. I plants, certainly the nazzes that smoked up this obstacle to artificial propagation of endangered species need a good tolchocking to the yarbles.

Use in the landscape

Like many of the “blue”-leaf Encephalartos species, E. ferox  provides a powerful visual anchor when planted as large single plants or in triples on mounds. In its favor is that it is financially more accessible to growers unwilling or unable to invest a thousand or more dollars in specimen-sized African cycads that are rarer and slower-growing. Given its color and form, any contrasting gravel mulch will accent the plants even more. There are several ways to use them in tropical and subtropical gardens (they tolerate very occasional light frosts).

While they will grow in full sun, they look their best when they receive morning sun and lightly filtered shade for the rest of the day. They also do well in large containers, but care is needed when siting tubs due to the ferocity of their leaf margins. Container-grown plants should be provided with a long-lasting growing media with excellent drainage. They respond well to moderately-heavy feeds when not in leaf flush. Obviously, plants should be sited so that their colorful cones can be readily appreciated by passers-by.

While some public gardens like to edge their cycad beds with liriopes (Liriope Lour., Liliaceae), mondo grasses (Ophiopogon Ker. Gawl., Liliaceae) or similar groundcovers, I think that in suitable climates these cycads could be profitably accented by judicious use of collector sansevierias (Agavaceae) from eastern Africa and/or some of the more spectacular southern African amaryllid genera (Haemanthus L., Boophane Herb. and Brunsvigia Heist).

Some of the smaller aloes (Aloe L.) would also provide excellent echoes to the giant rosettes of E. ferox. Two genera of shrubby succulent Apocynaceae, Sabi stars (unhybridized Adenium multiflorum Klotzch) and “fat” Pachypodium Lindl. species that are native to the same region also provide interesting visual accents to cycads, as would the rather rare but spectacular Natal flame bush (Alberta magna E. Meyer - Rubiaceae). Obviously, they also mix well with other comparitively small cycads from east Cape, particularly E. trispinosus (Hook.) R. A. Dyer and E. horridus (Jacq.) Lehm. This, even more so, if backed by one of the larger arborescent species such as E. longifolius (Jacq.) Lehm. or E. transvenosus Stapf and Burtt Davy. All of  the above-listed plants are commercially available from specialty nurseries in the U.S., Australia and South Africa.

          (Photos of Encephalartos horridus & E. trispinosus taken at Montgomery Botanical Center, Miami, FL)