Encephalartos msinganus – Vorster (1996)
Msinga cycad (Eng), Msingabroodboom (Afr)
The trunks are well developed, often sprouting from the bases to form clumps. The trunk is erect but usually leaning to some extent, up to 3m tall and about 350mm thick, covered with the usual geometrical pattern of old leaf bases and the crown is covered with dense brown wool.
The leaves are of medium length, 1100mm to 1500mm long, rigid, usually straight but sometimes slightly arched and dark glossy green. The petioles (leaf stalks) are thornless, hairless, and short at 20mm to 100mm long.
The leaflets at the basal end of the leaf are progressively reduced in size towards the base of the leaf with the lowermost in the form of prickles. The leaflets situated at about the middle of the leaf are pointed towards the apex of the leaf at an angle of about 60° with the leaf axis (rachis). Opposing leaflets are placed with an angle of about 90° between them, they are spaced 15mm to 25mm apart, not overlapping or with the lower margin slightly overlapping the upper margin of the leaflet below it when viewing the upper surface. The leaflets are hard in texture, narrowly ovate, without teeth or with teeth on both margins. The apices end in sharp and hard spines. The leaflets are 140mm to 170mm long and 16mm to 20mm wide.
The male cones are on stalks up to 70mm long, 2 to 4 per stem, very narrowly egg-shaped, appearing hairless, pale yellow, and 300mm to 400mm long and 110mm to 120mm across. The exposed faces of the cone scales are rhombic, and drawn out into prominent drooping beaks towards their terminal facet which is the only facet to be clearly defined. The female cones are sessile (i.e. not stalked), egg-shaped, one to two per stem, initially greenish yellow but turning brighter yellow as they become mature but with the colour to a greater or lesser extent masked by a cloak of brown, felt-like hair, and about 420mm long and 220mm across in the typical example measured. The exposed faces of the cone scales have poorly defined facets, are more or less raised towards the terminal facet, and warty. The seeds have a bright red sarcotesta (fleshy covering layer).
Distribution & Habitat
It is known from a small area in the neighborhood of Msinga in central KwaZulu-Natal, at altitudes of 900m to 1200m. It grows in short grassland on steep north-facing slopes, usually amongst boulders in scrub clumps, less commonly on sandstone cliff faces, more or less in direct sunlight. This area is rich in Encephalartos. It was nearby that, some years ago, a single clump of Encephalartos laevifolius was found, some 300km from the nearest known populations in Swaziland. (This clump has since been removed and is presently in private hands instead of the National Botanical Gardens. Molecular analysis at such a scientific institution may have told us much about past migrations). The type locality of Encephalartos cerinus is also not far from here; and E. natalensis and E. villosus grow almost within sight.
Cultivation & Propagation
Encephalartos msinganus appears to be free from vices and tolerant of maltreatment. Plants grown from seed in Stellenbosch, a place with cool wet winters and short summers, grow about as fast as E. aemulans, E. lebomboensis, and E. natalensis. Like all cycads, E. msinganus grows under very well-drained conditions. In addition, temperatures are decidedly high, rainfall probably not much higher than 600mm per year, and they grow more or less in blazing sunlight.
Some years ago plants from the Msinga area in KwaZulu-Natal started appearing in the trade. These had traits of both Encephalartos natalensis and E. lebomboensis, and critical study of these plants led to the conclusion that a previously unknown species was involved. It was described as new in the South African Journal of Botany 62: 67-70 (1996), under the name Encephalartos msinganus.
The appearance of the leaves and cones suggest that E. msinganus is part of a group of species comprising E. aemulans, E. altensteinii, E. natalensis, E. lebomboensis, and E. senticosus. The vegetative parts resemble those of E. aemulans, E. lebomboensis, and E. senticosus in its dark glossy green and rigid leaves, the hard, pungent, and relatively narrow leaflets usually (but not invariably) having teeth on both margins, the lower leaflets becoming progressively smaller towards the leaf base, and only a very short petiole. When not in cone, it is not at all easy to distinguish these species. The male cones resemble those of E. altensteinii, E. natalensis, and E. senticosus in respect of the exposed faces of the male cone scales being drawn out into drooping beaks towards the terminal facets. The female cones resemble those of E. altensteinii and E. natalensis by the warty surfaces of the exposed scale faces, and both as well as E. senticosus by the exposed cone scales being more or less raised towards the terminal facet with otherwise poorly defined facets. They differ from those of E. lebomboensis and E. senticosus by being warty rather than smooth, and additionally from those of E. lebomboensis where the scales are not raised. Encephalartos msinganus is therefore recognized by a combination of characteristics, namely relatively narrow leaflets (16-20 mm wide), and warty female cone scales.
When first discovered in the late 1980’s, there were several hundred rather widely scattered individuals. Since then, the activities of collectors, especially a handful of dealers who became widely known as sources of these plants, have almost eradicated them. The KwaZulu Bureau of Natural Resources, who until at least recently claimed jurisdiction over these plants, seems powerless to protect them. The species has become common in private collections (though not represented at either the National Botanical Garden at Kirstenbosch or the National Botanical Institute in Pretoria), but in habitat the numbers have dwindled to the extent that the species must be considered to be on the brink of extinction.