These families contain very primitive plants, frequently referred to as ‘living fossils’ and collectively known as cycads. The indigenous cycads of this country belong to two genera of Zamiaceae, viz. Stangeria, a stemless, fern-like genus, restricted to forests of Natal and the Eastern Cape, and Encephalartos 59, which includes all the cultivated species that are considered to be among the choicest of garden subjects. Both genera are totally protected and may not be collected in the wild.
The most familiar growth form seen in all cultivated cycads is that resembling a palm tree, with a thick, woody trunk, bearing a circular tuft of large fronds at its apex. Sexes are separate and in Encephalartos the female tree bears several large cones, weighing 30-35 kg in some species, which look rather like enormous pineapples, but without their apical tufts of leaves. On ripening, the cones open to expose large yellow, orange or scarlet seeds. In many species, the seeds (composed of kernels, surrounded by pulp) are toxic and fatalities have been recorded. If tubers and stem-pith of E. transvenosus and E. longifolius are properly prepared, i.e. boiled (which dilutes the water-soluble toxin) or fermented, it is reported that they may be eaten with safety.