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The Waterberg cycad

5 December 2013


The discovery of the Waterberg cycad is closely interwoven with the life of the naturalist Eugène Nielen Marais, who was born in Pretoria on 9 January 1871 and is generally regarded as the father animal behaviour in South Africa. He spent part of his life in the Waterberg and first brought the it and its varied natural wonders and beauty to the attention of naturalists and scientists throughout the world early in the 20th Century. He was a remarkably gifted writer, poet and naturalist and became a pioneer in the study of animal behaviour.


Eugène Marais led a controversial and complex life and originally came to the Waterberg to prospect for minerals and to seek solitude from the stresses and strains of a life that had seen him lose his young wife soon after the birth of their only child, a son. This inter alia led him to seek refuge in the use of morphine which at that time was generally available and was being used in all sorts of medication. It was originally thought to be a wonderful elixir that had no side-effects and its addictive properties only became known after it had already hooked its tentacles into this remarkable man. Yet Homer had suspected its addictive qualities and described morphine as “the poppy that was saturated with deadly sleep”. The Waterberg was one of many retreats to which Eugène Marais escaped during his life to rid himself of this debilitating addiction in vain.

Eugène Marais had a brilliant and logical mind and soon after going to school at the age of 5 years he met children from the Waterberg who told him about the hardships and beauty of this region. After an eventful early life, Eugène Marais first visited the Waterberg in 1905 and 1906 and moved to the Nylstroom (now Modimolle) district in the Waterberg in 1907 as a prospector, living near the tin mines on the farm Doornhoek. In 1908 he moved to the Farm Rietfontein from where he began research on a wide range of topics in the Waterberg, including a study of the social behaviour of the baboons in the Bobbejaanskloof on the farm Doornhoek. This study culminated in his books The Soul of the Ape and My Friends the Baboons.

Eugène Marias travelled widely in the Waterberg to conduct various experiments and do research on topics ranging from animal behaviour to snakes and toxic plants. Among others he spent a lifetime looking for antidotes to snakebite and the infamous black mambas of the Waterberg made fascinating topics of research. He later also acted as Justice of Peace for Nylstroom in 1911, and took over the control of the Weather Station on Rietfontein in 1912. In 1914 he wrote a treatise about the great drought which had culminated in 1914. This treatise was later reprinted by the Smithsonian Institution in the USA. This drought also brought an increase in termites which he studied intensively and led to his book The Soul of the White Ant in which his theories were decades ahead in the science of animal behaviour.

Eugène Marais was never overly active in plant research and yet he had a keen eye and could see when a plant was unknown. It was after he had stopped living in the Waterberg in 1926 that Eugène Marais found a cycad that was unknown to him while travelling on the Palala plateau. He collected some specimens and sent them to the well-known botanist Dr Rudolph Marloth for identification but he never replied. In 1935, only a few months before Eugène Marias took his own life, he visited his niece, Dr Inez Verdoorn, who was doing research on cycads in Pretoria to enquire whether she knew what had happened to the cycad samples which he had collected in the Waterberg. She was surprised because she did not know about any cycads in the Waterberg as none were believed to occur there at that time. After a joint search by them, the samples were found in the collection of the national herbarium of South Africa. Dr Marloth had also believed that there were no cycads in the Waterberg and had changed the locality of the collection to Nelspruit in the current Mpumalanga province.

www.leopard.tvEugène Marais died on 29 March 1936 before he could tell Inez Verdoorn exactly where he had found the plants and after extensive enquiries in 1944 a Mr Toerien sent a message to the National Herbarium that he had found some of the plants on the farm Palala Heights in the Waterberg. Both Drs R A Dyer and I Verdoorn hastened to the Palala Plateau where they found a large number of specimens on the farm Vlakfontein. There they collected more specimens and also found an unknown boring beetle with a snout-like proboscis living on the cones of the cycads. The Waterberg cycad was then described as Encephalartos eugene-maraisii and the beetle as Apinotropis verdoornae. This discovery by Eugène Marais consequently eventually led to two relatives being honoured scientifically, albeit for different reasons. Today the Waterberg cycad is an endangered species.

The Waterberg cycad is the first of the blue-leaved cycads to be described. It is now known to occur in the Waterberg and Pietersburg in the Limpopo province, and at Witbank and Middelburg in the Mpumalanga province. Although it is closely related to some other cycads, it can be distinguished by its straight, silver-blue leaves that are up to 4 m long. It has leaves with recurved ends, spineless and lance-shaped keeled median leaflets without lobes or serrated edges that are up to 30 cm long and 1.5 cm wide, and a clear petiole. The green cones are up to 50 cm long have a fine brown fuzz. The plants have single or clumped trunks that are up to 2.5 m tall and almost 50 cm in diameter. They grow on the sides of the deep ravines of the Waterberg.



Earle, C J (Ed). 2012. Encephalortos euegene-maraisii. The Gymnosperm database. http://www.conifers.org/za/Encephalartos_eugene-maraisii.php

Walker, C and J du P Bothma 2005. The Soul of the Waterberg. Houghton: Waterberg Publishers and African Sky Publishing.

By: Prof J du P Bothma


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