The Natal grass cycad is a palmlike perennial (plant that lives, grows, flowers, and produces seeds for three or more consecutive years). It grows to about 12 inches (30 centimeters) above the ground. Its underground stem may branch into several new stems. Up to four leaves grow from each of these growing points.
The plant’s leaves measure from 1.5 to 6.5 feet (0.5 to 2 meters) long. Each leaf contains numerous leaflets that measure 4 to 16 inches (10 to 41 centimeters) long. The size and shape of the leaflets vary depending on the habitat.
The leaflets of plants growing in open grassland are erect and compact, and have smooth margins or edges. Those of plants growing in forested habitats are taller and have serrated or saw–toothed margins.
The Natal grass cycad is dioecious (pronounced die–O–shus). This means that one cycad will have male cones while another will have female cones. The male cones, which give off pollen, are 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters) long and 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters) in diameter.
Female cones, which bear seeds after having been pollinated, are 7 to 8 inches (18 to 20 centimeters) long and 3 to 4 inches (8 to 10 centimeters) in diameter. Female cones bear 80 to 100 seeds.
Habitat and current distribution
This species of cycad is unique to the eastern coastal areas of South Africa. It is found both in coastal grasslands (where it grows in full sun) and in inland evergreen forests within 31 miles (50 kilometers) of the ocean (where it grows in semi–shade). Those plants growing in full sun produce more cones than those growing in the shade.
Botanists (people specializing in the study of plants) are unsure of the total number of plants currently in existence, but they estimate that more than 50,000 are gathered each year for the herbal trade in Natal (eastern province in South Africa).
History and conservation measures
Native people in the cycad’s range steep the plant in hot water to create a liquid extract or tea. They then sprinkle the liquid extract around their homes, believing it helps ward off lightning and evil spirits. They also give the liquid to infants suffering from congestion. Chemical studies of the Natal grass cycad, however, have not found any medicinal properties.
The Natal grass cycad is protected by international treaties. In all South African provinces, it is listed as a Specially Protected Plant. In order to meet the increasing demand for the plant as an herbal remedy, attempts are being made to breed the cycad artificially on a large scale.