The Gymnosperm Database


The specimen at Kew Gardens, UK, is claimed to be the world's oldest pot plant: "Collected by Kew's first plant-hunter, Francis Masson, it left the shores of the Eastern Cape in South Africa in 1773 and endured a long ocean voyage before finally arriving at Kew in 1775 ... It was one of the first plants to be moved into the palm house in 1848," where it still resides [C.J. Earle, 2010.06.14].


Plant growing at the San Diego Zoo [C.J. Earle, 2007.02.28].


Cones and cone scales. [Source unknown. Please contact me if you know artist or website of origin.]


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Conservation status

Encephalartos altensteinii

Lehmann 1834

Common names

Breadtree, broodboom; uJobane (Zulu) (Palmer & Pitman 1972), eastern Cape giant cycad.

Taxonomic notes


"This is a tall species, the stems up to 22 feet (6.7 m) high ... The trees may be branched or unbranched. The leaves are exceptionally long, often up to 10 feet (about 3 m), and are straight or curved backwards. The leaflets are rigid and fairly broad, the middle ones up to just over 1 inch (2.5 cm) in width, with one or both margins toothed. ... Usually 2-5 cones are borne together. They are greenish-yellow, up to 22 inches (56 cm) long, the female scales covered with protruberances. The seeds are large, up to just over 1 1/2 inches (3.8 cm) in length, and scarlet.

"The species closely resembles E. natalensis but lacks the prickles at the base of the leaf stalk found in the latter" (Palmer & Pitman 1972).

Distribution and Ecology

South Africa: "west bank of the Bushman's River in the south, northwards to the southern border of Natal, usually in coastal bush and forest" (Palmer & Pitman 1972).

Big tree



"It has been claimed that the seeds of this species are not toxic but this has not been proved scientifically. Africans in the East London district [of South Africa] believe them edible, and the authors of The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa say that the ripe seed has been eaten with impunity by the Zulu in times of famine. (Possibly in the latter case the species has been confused with E. natalensis). Children and birds have been seen eating the gum exuding from a cone" (Palmer & Pitman 1972).


I have seen it at the Sydney Botanical Garden and the San Diego Zoo. Locations in habitat unknown.


"The name altensteinii commemmorates a German chancellor of the 19th century.

"[T]his is a plant of exceptional vitality. Marloth noted that trunks which had lain in a shed for four years were perfectly capable of growing. When planted they produced new leaves in the next summer" (Palmer & Pitman 1972).

The species is threatened by illegal collecting, as shown by this news report: "[I]n 1995 ... a cycad smuggler [was arrested for] filling two tractor-trailers with Encephalartos altensteinii. The 40 tons of cycads were worth more than $1 million" (Maykuth 1998).


Maykuth, Andrew. 1998.04.13. Front Page: S. Africa is trying to protect its cycads, an endangered species from the dinosaur era. Philadelphia Inquirer., accessed 1999.01.12.

See also

Jones (1993).

Whitelock (2002).

Last Modified 2017-12-29