Encephalartos villosus – Lemaire (1867)

Poorman’s cycad (Eng)

Category: Least Concern



Encephalartos villosus has a short sub-terranean stem, more or less continuous with the main root. In mature plants the stem protrudes slightly above ground level but not more than about 30cm. The top of the stem is densely woolly and it is because of this woolliness that the name villosus was coined by Lemaire. Basal suckers are common and result in the typical multi-headed clump appearance of older plants.

The leaves of this cycad are dark shiny green. A new flush of leaves emerges rapidly from the crown and these are covered with a dense layer of white hairs that are soon shed. Leaves can be 3m in length but about half this measurement is more typical. The rachis is curved with the pinnae pairs set along the rachis in a flattish plane without overlapping. Median pinnae are up to 25cm long and 2cm broad although dimensions of 25cm x 1cm are more common. The individual leaflets are slightly curved, having a sickle-shaped appearance, especially on longer pinnae. Leaflets usually show a few small teeth on both margins, increasing in frequency towards the leaf tip which itself ends in a sharp spine. Examination of the abaxial surface shows the presence of 20 to 25 parallel veins. Most characteristic of E. villosus is the way in which individual leaflets reduce in size towards the leaf base, ending in a series of smaller and smaller prickles. The absence of any length of bare petiole distinguishes this species from the closely related E. umbeluziensis. There is substantial variation in leaflet character. Plants from Eastern Cape localities generally have shorter pinnae with a number of teeth, while the somewhat more robust plants in the northern localities have longer pinnae with fewer or no teeth. However, this variation seems continuous and there is little reason to separate the species into varietal groups. The earlier proposal by Stapf and Burtt Davy to call plants from Swaziland under the name E. striatus, although favoured by Henderson, was not supported by Hutchinson, Rattray or Dyer and has since been abandoned.

Male cones of E. villosus are pale yellow to yellow-green and supported on a well-developed peduncle. They are slender, cylindrical and taper slightly towards the apex, measurements of 60cm in length and 10cm in diameter being typical. At the time of pollen shedding, the cone emits a powerful odour that attracts large numbers of the curculionid weevil, Antliarhinus zamiae, which seems to be an important or even essential pollination vector for the species. Female cones are a deeper yellow (cadmium yellow to apricot) and also borne on a well-developed peduncle. They are shorter and thicker than their male counterparts, measurements of 40cm x 20cm being typical. A character used to distinguish E. villosus cones from those of other species is the presence on each cone scale facet of a wedge-like protruberance that overlaps the cone scale immediately beneath it. The seeds have a scarlet sarcotesta and are usually about 2.5cm long and 2cm in diameter.

Female cones

Male cones

Leaf detail

Distribution & Habitat

Encephalartos villosus is one of the most naturally common and widespread members of the genus. The species occurs in relative abundance along the sub-tropical eastern coastal belt from near East London, through KwaZulu-Natal, up into the south-eastern tip of Mpumalanga and Swaziland. It is usually associated with low forest in relatively temperate areas with a summer rainfall of 1000 to 1250mm per year and a mild, dry winter. Within this fairly broad distribution, a substantial amount of variation is seen in the species. (see description) The species most closely related to E. villosus appears to be E. umbeluziensis, which has a distribution restricted to hotter and drier areas to the north of the localities in which E. villosus is found. Both species occur in Swaziland but their respective habitats do not overlap. However, plants of intermediate character have been reported and Dr. Piet Vorster has produced a hybrid by crossing the two species artificially. Near Pongola Poort E. villosus and E. lebomboensis grow together and natural hybrids of these two species are relatively well known. Similarly, in the southern areas of its distribution, E. villosus co-exists with E.altensteinii and again intermediate type plants are not uncommon.

Cultivation & Propagation

E. villosus makes an excellent garden subject, especially effective in groupings under large trees. It responds well to good soil, warmth and moisture and is tender to frost. Older plants that have formed multi-headed clumps are easily divided and plants thus obtained soon re-establish themselves. Like most cycads, E. villosus is also a rewarding container plant and old specimens of E. villosus usually develop into sizeable multi-headed clumps. Propagation is by seed or by removing suckers from the parent plant.



In 1788, the European botanist, Gaertner, described a cycad cone under the name Zamia villosa. It is now almost certain that this description was based on cone material from Encephalartos caffer – hence the name Zamia villosa has no botanical validity. Proper credit for the name E. villosus goes to Charles A. Lemaire, professor of classical literature in Paris, who was a keen naturalist with a passion for cacti. Lemaire was appointed editor of the horticultural journal “Illustration Horticole” – a post which he held for 16 years. In 1867 he published a description in that journal of E. villosus and E. ghellinckii “in order to appreciate the merit and superior beauty of these two species”. Early records from the Durban Botanic Gardens indicate that Mr. M.J. McKen, its first curator, sent a large number of cycad specimens to public gardens and on 22 February 1867, he sent 25 plants, collected near Umtwalume on the Natal South Coast, to one Ambroise Verschaffelt in Ghent, Belgium. Verschaffelt was a botanically minded nurseryman and a close friend of Lemaire’s and it seems likely that the Natal consignment contained the E. villosus material on which Lemaire based his botanical text.

Although the species is very common, it is clear that many hundreds of plants have been taken from habitats. In the Eastern Cape, large habitat areas have been cleared for pineapple plantings and in Natal many of the E. villosus areas have been sacrificed to banana crops and afforestation projects. However, large populations are relatively well protected in reserves (e.g. Krantzkloof, near Durban) and it is hoped that these will remain for posterity. Relative commonness in a cycad species can never justify complacency in the conservation effort.

E. villosus is very well represented internationally with specimens in most of the bigger European botanical gardens, e.g. Amsterdam, Utrecht, Meise, Copenhagen, Berlin, Gottingen, Munich, Zurich, Paris, Dublin, Edinburg and Kew. The best specimens to be seen are those in gardens close to the habitats, i.e. the Durban Botanic Gardens and the nearby Old Fort Gardens.