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History of Cycads

Cycads’ large, divided leaves mean that they are often confused with palms or tree-ferns. Even though they are not at all related, the cycad owes its name to this slight resemblance. In fact, the word ‘cycad’ is derived from the Greek word ‘cyckos’ which means ‘palm-like’.

Cycads are a small family of unique plants with a long history. Historical evidence supports the fact that they inhabited the earth before dinosaurs, some 200 million years ago. Sometimes called ‘living fossils,’ cycads have changed hardly at all since the Carboniferous period 50 to 60 million years ago. Once abundant across the globe, cycads have greatly dwindled in number. Botanists have recorded the existence of about 250 species – tiny in comparison to the approximately 300 000 species of flowering plants currently on the planet.

Cycads are tropical or subtropical plants. They reproduce only sporadically and grow in limited, rather than widespread, areas. This means that their existence is fragile when facing habitat destruction. They are dioecious (male and female reproductive organs develop on separate plants), and reproduction is by seed dispersal. The reproductive organs are produced in cones, and not in flowers as in other plants. Cycads were previously classified as gymnosperms (meaning their seeds are not enclosed in an ovary). Gymnosperms, incidentally, are ancient seed plants, many of which are now extinct. However, recent studies have shown that this is not a natural group, and that some members are in fact closer to flowering plants than to other gymnosperms.

The Encephalartos genus is unique to Africa and was named by German botanist J.G.C. Lehmann in 1834. The name Encephalartos is derived from the Greek words ‘en’ (in), ‘cephale’ (head) and ‘artos’ (bread). The explanation for this is that African cycads were referred to as ‘bread-palms’ by indigenous people because an edible starchy substance can be collected from within the stems and prepared to make a bread-like food.

The cycads living today are relics of prehistoric times. Many cycads have conservation ratings, due to habitat destruction and poaching. The future existence of these fascinating plants depends on artificial propagation.