Stangeria eriopus; Natal Grass Cycad; Stangeria; Bobbejaankos (Afrikaans); imfingo (Zulu); umfingwani – the plant & umncuma for the female cone (Xhosa).
I have always had a soft spot for this plant as it makes a very pleasing, easy-to-grow container and garden plant. There are some magnificent specimens growing in the lawns near the cycad section in the Durban Botanic Gardens that have been there for probably more than a century. The plants have become large and make a good show of arching, fern-like leaves that bear no real resemblance to what we all know as cycads.
The Stangeria is endemic to our region and its world distribution is along the coastal belt of the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and southern Mozambique. There are two forms of this species - one that is found in coastal and escarpment forests, and the other which has much shorter leaves (about 30-40cm long) in the adjoining grasslands of this region. Unfortunately, its distribution has been reduced by human agriculture, suburban sprawl and over-utilisation as an ornamental plant, as a well as a medicinal/cultural plant - it is used to ward off lightning and evil.
It’s only when the plant sends up its cones that we get the clue needed to show that this plant is a cycad and not a fern. Plants develop an underground tuber or rootstock from which the leaves and cones grow - the rootstock is underground to protect the plant from fire and being eaten by animals. As in the case of other cycads, there are about 5 genera of cycad moths that lay their eggs on the emerging leaves, and whose caterpillars feed on the leaves and then pupate in the ground around the plants. The good thing is that the moths only lay their eggs on the soft, new leaves, not the old, hardened leaves of the previous growing season. I have carted a potted specimen of this plant with me wherever I have lived for about 40 years now. I have lost the leaves to the moths about 5 times in that time, when my vigilance was not up to speed, but I do normally check the new leaves that pop out in summer carefully. It grows happily in semi-shade, gets fed during the summer months when it is growing, and rests in the winter months with virtually no watering.
When the cones first appear above ground, they are greenish-brown in colour and covered in silvery-white hairs. These plants are dioecious, meaning that male and female cones are produced on different plants. Male cones are longer and taper towards the top of the cone, whereas female cones are not as long, and become well-rounded as the seeds within develop. The weight of the seeds draws the cone down to the ground and it eventually splits open to reveal the pinkish-red seeds, that are fed on by forest mammals like Blue and Red Duiker, Bushbuck and Bushpigs, plus the larger, fruit-eating birds like Trumpeter and Crowned Hornbills, and Purple-crested and Knysna Turacos. I have tried this fleshy outer seed coat, but I would have to be very hungry to want to eat more!
Before planting the seeds, remove the flesh, down to the woody seed coat. Seeds will germinate easily if sown into a seedling mix of sand and well-matured compost. Push the cleaned seeds into the mixture, just to the level of the soil, and wait for about 2-3 months until they all begin to germinate. Once the new seedling leaf has hardened they can be transferred into their own containers.