You are currently viewing Encephalartos species (Isigqiki-somkhovu)

Encephalartos species (Isigqiki-somkhovu)

  • Post comments:0 Comments
  • Reading time:8 mins read

Family: Zamiaceae

Scientific name: Encephalartos species

Common names: isigqiki somkhovu (Zulu), natal cycad (English), natalbroodboom (Afrikaans)

In the Zulu mythology, it is said that when a witch (known as umthakathi in Zulu) makes umkhovu (a zombie made using witchcraft), it sits on top of a cycad, hence the name isiqgki-somkhovu, which translates to English as “the chair for umkhovu”. Meaning the cycad is a chair for umkhovu. Isigqiki-somkhovu is also known as isidwaba-somkhovu. 

Plant description

The name isigqiki-somkhovu refers to most, if not all cycads grown in South Africa. Cycads are the most primitive living seed plant with a fossil record that dates back to the Permian or Carboniferous era, a million years ago. This means that at one point in time cycads could have been food for dinosaurs. 

Throughout the article the terms isigqiki-somkhovu and cycads are used interchangeably.


In South Africa, a permit is required to own a cycad because all cycads are protected by national and provincial laws. An exception is made when you find a cycad growing by itself or when you buy a property that already has a cycad. It is still recommended that you contact the nature conservation official in your area and let them know that you have a cycad on your property. When buying a cycad, it’s important to know where the plant comes from.  

The name isigqiki-somkhovu applies to most, if not all species with a trunk that belongs to the Encephalartos genus. This includes E. natalensis, E. ghellinckii, E. senticosus, E. lebomboensis, E. villosus, E. ferox, and E. ngoyanus just to name a few. There are at least 23 Encephalartos species in South Africa. The genus name Encephalartos is a Greek word meaning “bread in head” in English. And this bread in the head refers to the powdery or floury material in the trunk of some species that can be used to prepare bread-like floury food. In times of famine the pith of the stem was used as a substitute for bread flour. 

Due to the similarities in some of the species, some species have been confused with each other. For example: E. senticosus is often confused with E. lebomboensis (the lebombo cycad). This confusion stems from the fact that the two plants were initially thought to be related due to their similarity. It was Pieter Johannes Vorster, a South African botanist that clarified the differences in the shapes of the species male cones, resulting in their separation in 1996. 

At both the traditional medicine markets in Warwick (Durban) and Faraday (Joburg), the E. natalensis is the species that is sold the most. About 78% of isigqiki-somkhovu that’s sold is E. natalensis. The other species are sold in smaller quantities. 

Even though a permit is required for possession of cycads, there is no real mechanism for monitoring the legal trade of cycads in South Africa. The conservation status of cycads varies from vulnerable, to endangered to critically endangered depending on the species and location. For example: E.natalensis is considered near threatened while E.ghellinckii and E.senticosus are considered as vulnerable and facing a high risk of extinction.   


Isigqiki-somkhovu has a long history of use as food, decorative plants, and traditional medicine. At the Faraday traditional medicine market, isigqiki-somkhovu is sold in the form of bark strips and stem fragments (or stems that are chopped-up into pieces).

Isigqiki-somkhovu is planted in front of the gate in a home or a building to protect it from various forms witchcraft, especially those that make use of umkhovu. It is said that when a person carrying a concoction made using witchcraft enters a home with isigqiki-somkhovu planted at the gate, the concoction is rendered useless by the tree.

When there is someone doing witchcraft inside the home with isigqiki-somkhovu that’s planted at the gate, the leaves of the tree will drop to the floor. This actually happens with all sacred plants. When something unclean comes into your home or when the home is filled with negative energy, you’ll see the leaves drooping or the flowers will begin to die. One sacred plant that you don’t need a permit for and that you can plant in the home is called Hibiscus sabdariffa. The flowers of this hibiscus are really beautiful and are known to carry purifying and healing energy. In some cultures, the flowers are used in sacred ceremonies. The leaves and flowers of this plant begin to wilt when the energy in the home becomes too negative. H.sabdariffa is a cheaper alternative to protecting and purifying your home as cycads can be quite expensive.  

Unlike H. sabdariffa, isigqiki-somkhovu is what you call an intelezi plant, a plant for protection. It is planted to fortify a home against various forms of witchcraft, this is known as ukuqinisa or ukubethela in Zulu.

If you adopt a lifestyle that does not believe in the killing of animals such as veganism, you won’t feel comfortable with using amabhodlela to fortify the home. In such cases, isigqiki-somkhovu or umathithibala (Haworthia limifolia) are used to fortify the home.

When someone sends umkhovu to your home it is said that it will be compelled to sit on the tree.

When growing the tree, as a seedling or before maturing, an older respectable person should water the tree. The plant is said to die when watered by just about anyone, especially someone that is considered unclean.  

Addedly, this plant can be used for decorative purposes. Isigqiki-somkhovu is a lovely plant, some people plant it for its ornamental value.

Lastly, isigqiki-somkhovu has been used as food, especially the starchy pith of the fruit. The pith is what you call the white stuff inside some fruits. 

Safety precaution:

The use of traditional medicine in prescribed dosages will yield good results. Misuse and abuse may lead to complications. To learn about correct dosage, consult a traditional healer or a herbalist. You can also visit or email: to learn more about traditional medicine.

Leave a Reply