Cycads are one of the oldest types of trees in the world, and the E. woodi [Encephalartos woodii] is no exception. First discovered in 1895 by John Medley Wood, in Ngoya Forest in Zululand, Southern Africa, the lone tree sat on a steep slope at the edge of the woods, looking quite differently than the other trees. The cycad had thick multiple trunks and a splay of palm frond at the top. The botanist collected stems and sent them back to London. A single stem can live anywhere between 500 to 1200 years, depending on the conditions upon which it is kept.
Over two hundred million years ago, cycads could be found in abundance throughout the world, on every continent. They made up about 20% of the world’s plants. These mighty trees survived whatever ended the age of dinosaurs, survived 5 ice ages, and adapted to learn with new trees and life.
However, the cycad trees had been pushed into smaller spaces over the centuries, until there was just one tree left of this order.
The e. woodii stems, collected by Dr. Wood, stayed in London for the next 98 years at the Palm House at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.
Since the original stem was collected, there are somewhere between 300 and 600 plants grown by botanists around the world to study and try to reproduce.
Unfortunately, the Encephalartos woodii cycad cannot self-fertilize. The cycad grows a cone filled with pollen, which attracts insects and birds to help it pollinate with other trees of its kind. The last tree in London is a male, with no female to be found – yet. Without a female cycad, the Encephalartos woodii cannot produce seeds or new trees.
This may be the last true tree of its kind. All is not completely lost. The tree can be cloned, or hybrids created, and sold in stores.
Next time you’re in London, make a visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens and pay homage to a prehistoric tree, lonely as can be.
Want to grow your own cycad? Amazon has cycad seeds available.