Thanks again to Ruth for today’s write-up:
Aahhhh, a gymnosperm. It’s been a while since we’ve discussed a plant without flowers. Here is a “dinosaur species”, a member of the Zamiaceae populating the landscape during Cretaceous times: Velociraptor (75 to 71Ma ago), Tyrannosaurus rex (68 to 65Ma ago) and Encephalartos caffer — if only I had a time machine! Out-surviving the dinosaurs, this specific Encephalartos is from the coastal belt of southeast Africa in the east of Cape Province. It is speculated that the species has evolved to seek shelter from grassveld wildfires by a strategy of growing tucked amongst rock outcroppings. Encephalartos caffer is accustomed to hot dry summers and will not tolerate frost. Some individuals have been recorded at a height of 4.5 meters, but growth to this extreme takes decades and rarely happens in cultivation.
Cycads, like many gymnosperms, are dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. Today’s picture is of a young female cone. The cone arose from a short stalk emerging from the basal rosette of stiff compound leaves. At maturity, this cone will bear bright red seeds, two per scale. The name Encephalartos translates to bread within the head in Greek, alluding to the fact that a starch for bread can be made from the pith of the stalk. Some Africans still use these plants for that purpose, although cycads as a group are generally endangered. I urge you not to attempt making bread from a cycad, as their toxicity is under investigation. Cycads contain toxic compunds in many of their tissues, with seeds having especially concentrated amounts of these often lethal poisons.