Encephalartos laevifolius – Stapf and Burtt Davy (1926)
Kaapsehoop Cycad (Eng), Kaapsehoop Broodboom (Afr)
Encephalartos laevifolius has tall stems, often reaching 3 to 4 meters in height. The trunks are comparatively slender for a cycad of this height and are usually in the 25cm to 30cm diameter range. Stems often branch at, or sucker from, the base so that a group of 6 to 7 trunks on a single rootstock is not uncommon. Older stems often lie prostrate with the growing end recurving upwards. The leafbases are small and compressed to give a characteristic appearance to the trunk. A banding pattern is usually fairly clear and probably indicates alternation in growing conditions or coning cycles. Since there is little or no wooliness at the stem apex, the sharp, upward-pointing and persistent scale leaves (cataphylls) are clearly evident.
Leaves are typically about 1 meter long, the leaves on mature plants are nearly straight with only slight evidence of twists or curvature. The characteristic yellow leafstalk is bare for about 25cm at the base. The leaves emerge as pale green and hairy. On maturity they loose the hairs and become a more grey-green colour. The Mariepskop plants have somewhat more lax and more greenish leaves.
Pinnae are fairly closely packed but without overlapping and set in a V-formation, slightly less so at the base. Median leaflets are about 12cm to 15cm long, by 5mm to 6mm wide. Teeth are absent, except for a single spine at the leaflet tip. About 10 to 12 parallel veins are clearly seen from the undersurface.
Up to 5 male cones are borne on a single trunk. They are at first covered with short whitish hair, which is soon lost to give a final smooth pale brown appearance. The male cones are 30cm to 40cm long and 10cm in diameter and curve sideways at the time of pollen release. I have observed large numbers of an Antliarrhinus-like beetles amongst the cone scales in habitat plants at the time of pollen release and believe these insects function in pollen transfer to the female cones. Female cones, usually borne in 3’s, are barrel-shaped, 20cm to 30cm long by 10cm to 15cm in diameter with yellowish hairs in the recesses between cone scales. Seeds have an orange-yellow outer coat and are about 2.5cm to 2.7cm long by 2.0cm to 2.3cm broad. Baboons, vervet monkeys, dassies, some birds and fruit-eating bats all enjoy the fleshy part of the seed and aid in seed dispersal.
Distribution & Habitat
The main stands of E. laevifolius are found within the catchment zone of the Crocodile River at or near the tops of rocky krantzes of the Kaapsehoop Range west of Nelspruit. Isolated groups are present to the north of this main population on the Amajuba high points above Sudwala Caves. It is from this area (Spitzkop, near Sibthorpe) that Burtt Davy collected the material on which he wrote the species description. About 130 km further to the north the Mariepskop mountains host a disjunct population of about four groups of the same species. Isolated smaller colonies are found to the west of this locality in the Trichardtsdal area. The species has also been reported by Prof. Compton in 1965 and by Denis Heenan in 1969 as being present near Pigg’s Peak in Swaziland, both reports being substantiated by herbarium specimens at the B.R.I. All the localities are high altitude sites (1300m to 1500m) which receive a high rainfall (over 1000mm p.a.) falling mainly as summer thunderstorms and with frequent mists. Temperatures vary between the extreme of 40° C in mid-summer and severe frosts in winter. Like many other Encephalartos species, E. laevifolius appears to be adapted to a 3 to 5 year burning cycle. The species is not widely distributed in botanic gardens. Plants can be found at the Naples Botanic Garden and at Ewanrigg, near Harare. In South Africa, specimens can be seen at Kirstenbosch, Durban Botanic Gardens, the BRI gardens at Pretoria and in the grounds of the University of Pretoria. Nearer to its habitat, specimens have been established at the Lowveld Botanic Garden, in the grounds of the Citrus and Sub-Tropical Fruit Research Institute at Nelspruit.
Cultivation & Propagation
E. laevifolius grows well, but slowly in cultivation. Its semi-deciduous habit makes younger plants rather untidy in appearance, but the final product is worth this temporary inconvenience! The plant needs fairly sunny conditions and a well-drained site. Frequent watering in summer should be followed by much less in winter, especially if the leaves become brown. The species is frost-tolerant.
The description of Encephalartos laevifolius is in Joseph Burtt Davy’s publication “A Manual of the Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Transvaal” published in 1926. The epithet “laevifolius” is derived from the Latin “levus” (often incorrectly “laevus“) and meaning smooth, i.e. “laevifolius” literally means “smooth-leaved” and emphasises the distinction from the wooliness of E. lanatus. Hutchinson and Rattray, in 1933, grouped E. lanatus and E. laevifolius together, but Henderson’s major revision in 1945 re-established them as separate species. The type specimen of E. laevifolius, collected by W. Todd some 70 years ago (the date was unfortunately not recorded), is filed in the Kew Herbarium with a duplicate in the Natal Herbarium. These specimens were said to have come from “Moodies, near Barberton” but Dr. Dyer pointed out later that they were most probably collected nearer to Nelspruit than Barberton. A search through the B.R.I. herbarium records in Pretoria showed that specimens were collected by J.J. van Nouhuys (1929), L. Leibenberg (1934) and subsequently by many other workers including Drs Dyer, Verdoorn and Henderson.
A useful set of points to distinguish E. laevifolius and E. lanatus is given in Cynthia Giddy’s book under the former species description. No hybrids between E. laevifolius and any other species are known despite their proximity in habitat to several other Eastern Transvaal species. A suggestion that E. heenanii is in fact a cross of E. laevifolius and E. paucidentatus has not yet been properly tested and deserves attention.
E. laevifolius is endangered as much of the previous potential or actual habitat area has been put to forestry use. A second threat to the plants has been the unfortunate raids by plant racketeers, and despite the restricted access to the area, this plundering continues. The main population at Kaapsehoop is probably less than one thousand in number.