Encephalartos altensteinii
Common Name: prickly cycad 
Type: Palm or Cycad
Family: Zamiaceae
Native Range: Southern Africa
Zone: 10 to 12
Height: 10.00 to 20.00 feet
Spread: 8.00 to 15.00 feet
Bloom Time: Non-flowering
Bloom Description: Non-flowering
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Water: Medium
Maintenance: Medium
Leaf: Evergreen
Other: Winter Interest
Tolerate: Drought


Winter hardy to USDA Zones 10-12 where it can be grown outdoors in medium moisture, well-drained loams in full sun to part shade. Tolerates shade. Best performance occurs in moist soils with regular irrigation, but avoid overwatering. Tolerates drought. Also tolerates occasional light frost.

Noteworthy Characteristics

Encephalartos altensteinii, commonly called prickly cycad, is a very slow-growing, evergreen tree with palm-like foliage that is native to South Africa (East Cape Province). In the early years, this tree appears trunkless, producing stiff, pinnate, palm-like leaves with spiny bright green leaflets. Leaves are whorled into a dense upright crown. Over time, a stout trunk begins to develop, eventually rising to 12-16’ tall. Trunks often tend to recline once they reach about 10’ tall. On mature trees, leaves in the terminal crown will grow to as much as 9’ long. This is a dioecious tree that reproduces by seed cones. Large yellowish-green cones on female trees grow to 22” long, somewhat resembling a pineapple. Cones on male trees are cylindrical and smaller. Leaflets usually have prickles, hence the common name of prickly cycad. A potted plant collected in South Africa and sent to Kew Gardens near London in 1773 is still alive, and is today considered to be one of the oldest potted plants in the world. The Hottentot used the stem pith for food (sago) by removing it, burying it, rotting it, digging it up, kneading it and baking it. Another common name for this tree is bread tree. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) has placed the genus Encephalartos on its list of threatened species.

Genus name comes from the Greek words en meaning in, cephale meaning a head and artos meaning bread for the edible "heart" of the plant.

Specific epithet honors Baron von Stein zum Altenstein (1770-1840), Prussian statesman.


No serious insect or disease problems.


Ornamental specimen for frost free areas. Grow in conservatories, warm greenhouses or as indoor potted plants north of USDA Zone 10. Excellent trunkless indoor container plant when young.