Are Cycads in your garden legal?


Cycads in your Garden: are they legal?

Retha Visser, another well-informed KBR resident, discusses in this contribution an issue that affects the many keen gardeners in our transition areas: the growing of cycads.


Although there are no cycad species endemic to the Overberg area, many gardens have some treasured cycads growing in a special spot. According to a recent article in “Veld & Flora” (Vol. 10(1), March 2015, p.13), cycads are the most threatened plant group in South Africa, and one of the most threatened group of plants globally. Almost 70% of our cycad species are threatened with extinction, with four on the brink of extinction and seven which have fewer than 100 plants left in the wild.

Illegal harvesting for landscaping purposes and also for the acquisition of particular species for private collections are the main threat to South Africa’s cycads.  These illegal activities have devastated wild cycad populations.  According to the authors the illegal trade in cycads is  driven by three types of persons:-

  • The profiteer who arranges to buy cycads cheaply from poachers, then sells  them for large profits;
  • The collector who wants to show off his/her large collection of cycads which were bought at exorbitant prices; and
  • The ignorant or naive buyer buying illegal plants, believing that he/she is contributing to conservation.

While character traits like egotism and greed are part of human nature, it is possible to correct misconceptions. It is not true that conservation can be advanced by buying large cycads for private gardens. On the contrary, this is what drives the illegal trade. Once all specimens of a species are removed from the wild, the species is functionally extinct.  Cycads in private gardens are not part of their natural environment.  Species then have to be propagated and planted again in an attempt to reintroduce them into their natural environments; it may take centuries before a population is restored to its original state.

Buying cycads ‘off the street’ is a highly dubious practice. You may try to plead that you did not remove the plant yourself, but morally and legally this is equivalent to buying a stolen car.  Any cycad removed from the wild before 1970 (when it was still legal to remove cycads from the wild) means that you may still legally possess these cycads.  The question one should ask oneself “How legal are the cycads in my garden?”  Since May 2012 it is prohibited to harvest, trade, sell, buy, import, export, donate, convey or receive any wild cycads, even the plants that have possession permits.

How does one know that the cycads on sale are illegal and poached from a wild population? According to guidelines in the article, one should look out for the following:

  • A microchip in the stem (the plant would have to be scanned to determine whether the plant is a legal garden cycad or a wild cycad);
  • Wild cycads usually have strange stem deformities;
  • The cycad stem has a crescent shape if grown on an overhang;
  • Variations in the diameter of the stem indicating varying growth rates;
  • Long stems with small leaf bases, indicating slow growth;
  • Compact, with small leaf bases at the lower parts of the plant, indicating harsher wild conditions;
  • Multiple branches from the main stem;
  • Burn marks on the stem from veld fires;
  • Stems sanded of brushed with wire brush to try remove burn marks;
  • Cut marks on stem made by panga when poached from the wild;
  • Deep holes in the base where poachers try to remove microchips;
  • Absence of any leaves on plants;
  • Patches of leave bases completely removed by porcupine or muthi collectors in the wild; and/or
  • Whether there is a permit and if there is one if the permit is for the incorrect size and the threatened status of the species.


Cycads and the Law

Penalties for contravention of any of the laws, (eg collection, the possession  and trading in illegal cycads) are up to 10 years in prison or a R10 million fine, or both. To check the environmental status of your cycad(s) visit the

To learn more about the finer details of the law, or if you suspect any illegal activities regarding cycads, you should contact the Department of Environmental Affairs at the Environmental Crimes Hotline 0800 205 005.


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  Vol 3, Issue 1 - March 2016
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