The E. woodii cycad is one of the rarest plants in the world, believed to be extinct in the wild. Image: Wikimedia

Rare cycad from a KZN forest is the only one left on the planet

Scientists have only ever discovered one example of a rare cycad that is endemic to KwaZulu-Natal’s Ngoye forest.


The E. woodii cycad is one of the rarest plants in the world, believed to be extinct in the wild. Image: Wikimedia

A rare species of cycad, E. woodii, is the only example scientists have ever discovered – a male plant living a lonely existence in South Africa’s Ngoye Forest in 1895.

Ngoye is an ancient coastal scarp forest that is protected by the oNgoye Forest Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal.

E. woodii is now considered extinct in the wild and has been propagated for more than 100 years. In 1899, an offshoot from the base of the plant was removed and sent to Kew Gardens in London.

Three offshoots were collected in 1903 and planted in the Durban Botanic Gardens, while one specimen was received at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland.

A sucker from one of the Durban Botanic Gardens plants was sent to Kirstenbosch in 1916.

Finding the cycad a mate

There are now an estimated 500 E. woodii individuals in existence – all clones from the original specimen.

Scientists are now hoping to bring the plant back from extinction through natural reproduction, writes Explorers Web.

Dr. Laura Cinti, a research fellow at the University of Southampton’s Winchester School of Art, is leading a team of scientists that are using drones and AI to search the dense 4 000-hectare Ngoye Forest for a possible mate for the plant.

“This plant is, as far as we know, extinct in the wild,” said Cinti.

“I was very inspired by the story of the E. woodii, it mirrors a classic tale of unrequited love. I’m hopeful there is a female out there somewhere, after all, there must have been at one time.”

Cycads are prehistoric plants that have survived for more than 280 million years, and have changed very little since the Jurassic period in comparison to some other plant groups.

Cycads are often mistaken for palms, due to similarities in foliage and plant structure. However, cycads bear cones while palms flower and bear fruit. They are the oldest seed-bearing type of plant still alive today.

Conservation around cycads is strictly regulated, and if someone owns or wants to purchase an indigenous Encephalartos cycad, they must obtain a permit. This requirement helps protect these threatened species from illegal trade.

A possible sex change?

Drones captured tens of thousands of multispectral images in the forest in 2022 but weren’t able to find another example of the species. This prompted Cinti and her team to turn to AI.

“With the AI, we are using an image recognition algorithm in order to recognise plants by shape,” she said.

The research team also has a Plan B if the AI search proves unsuccessful.

“There have been reports of sex change in other cycad species due to sudden environmental changes such as temperature, so we are hopeful we can induce sex change in the E. woodii too,” Cinti added.