Astonishing Cycads

Primitive in origin and puzzling in appearance to many people, cycads make up one of the San Diego Zoo’s accredited plant collections. Two new specimens are notable for their rarity and history.

BY Wendy Perkins

Photography by Tammy Spratt

The new Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks at the Zoo offers a glimpse into the astounding biodiversity found on the continent of Africa—plants as well as animals. Among the flora that sets the scene and shades guests are two particularly special plants. At the end of 2016, we received two rare, mature cycads that are worth pausing to ponder.

Neither fern nor palm (although they resemble both in some ways), cycads are plants in a group of their own.

Cycads are the oldest living seed plants on Earth. Their tough, sharp-edged fronds fed dinosaurs. As a group, cycads have survived three mass extinction events, but many are struggling with habitat loss in today’s world. There are 11 genera of cycads around us today; our two newcomers are members of the genus Encephalartos.

Rarest of All

As you step through the portal across from Australian Outback into Africa Rocks, you’ll find our two newest cycads to your right. The shorter of the two is a Wood’s cycad Encephalartos woodii—considered among the rarest plant species in the world. Cycads are slow growers, yet this specimen stands about six feet tall.

Precautions were engineered to protect the Wood’s cycad as it was moved to the Zoo.

Named for John Medley Wood, the renowned botanist who first identified it, E. woodii was already extremely rare when discovered in 1895. By 1915, the last wild specimens had been transferred to botanic gardens. Although extinct in the wild today, the species is well represented in private cycad collections and botanic gardens. It is estimated that there are around 500 individual E. woodii still photosynthesizing today. However, all of them are “pups” that budded from the original plant. They are all male, and share the exact same genetic material. With no female specimens in existence, there can be no seeds, no new genetic variety, and no way to move the species forward.

We are thrilled to provide a safe haven for this specimen. The fact that “our” E. woodii is the “great-great-grandson” of the iconic plant discovered in 1895 makes it even more special.

Senior Cycad

The other esteemed addition to our accredited collection is a huge Albany cycad E. latifrons estimated to be more than 500 years old. This particular cycad species is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). With fewer than 60 E. latifrons individuals left in the wild in highly fragmented locations, this stalwart survivor is truly a treasure.

Our specimen originally came to the US by boat in the 1960s. It was one of four individuals that were all in one clump. This particular individual was sold to a collector in 1997. When the collector died in 2006, the plant was passed to another collector, where it spent the last decade before coming to the Zoo.

Cycads grow slowly—the height of our E. latifrons is a sign of its advanced age.

Our horticulture team plans on harvesting pollen from our precious giant, to share it with institutions that have female E. latifrons in need of hand pollination. Working together, we hope to increase the population ex situ, and preserve this species for generations to come.

Make a point of seeing these spiky, stately specimens when you visit Africa Rocks.