Cycad Spurge

Scientific Name
Euphorbia bupleurifolia Jacq.
Higher Classification
Euphorbia proteifolia Boiss.
Common Names
Cycad Spurge (e), Inkamamasane (z), Insema (z), Insema (x), Intsele (x), Melkbol (a)
National Status
Status and Criteria
Critically Endangered A2acd+4acd
Assessment Date
N.N. Mhlongo & M.F. Pfab
This species is endemic to the eastern parts of South Africa and has an extent of occurrence (EOO) of 64 496 km ², and an area of occupancy (AOO) of 132 km². It has experienced a reduction of at least 97% since 1975 due to illegal collecting for the specialist succulent trade and the traditional medicine trade. This decline level is estimated based on the reported number of plants exported for the horticultural trade and on those suspected to have been harvested for trade in muthi markets relative to the number of plants remaining in the wild as determined by extensive surveys across this species' distribution in 2018. About 40% of suitable habitat has been lost (calculated using GIS), mostly due to infrastructure developments, mining, and agriculture. Ongoing loss of individuals due to trade and habitat loss is likely to cause at least a further 10% decline in the population by 2035. This species therefore qualifies for listing as Critically Endangered under criterion A.
South African endemic
Provincial distribution
Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal
This species is endemic to the KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa, where it occurs from Grahamstown to Pietermaritzburg.
Habitat and Ecology
Major system
Major habitats
Bhisho Thornveld, Amathole Montane Grassland, Suurberg Quartzite Fynbos, Pondoland-Ugu Sandstone Coastal Sourveld, Buffels Mesic Thicket
Plants grow in open grasslands, usually in stony shallow soils with a thin cover of grass. Plants often occur near small rocky ridges.
This species is highly sought after for both the international and local horticultural markets, as well as the local traditional medicine markets. More than 70 000 plants have been exported from South Africa since 1975, and nurseries are suspected of illegally harvesting wild specimens to supplement their shortfall. Nursery audits conducted in 2018 found over 8 600 plants in cultivation, with approximately 98% of them having distinctively wild characteristics, suggesting a wild collection of plants. This species is also traded on online platforms such as eBay and social media websites, with postal deliveries cited as the preferred method. It was previously commonly traded in large volumes in muthi markets and shops in King Williams Town, East London, and Umtata (Dold and Cocks 2000). However, a study conducted in 2018 found only four plants in trade in muthi markets and shops, possibly indicating that this species has become scarce in the wild (Mhlongo, 2020). Stakeholders in the traditional medicine trade interviewed in this study also confirmed that this species is in great demand for medicinal use Scott-Shaw (1999) warned that harvesting of this species in KwaZulu-Natal was unsustainable, and the species was given a regional status of vulnerable. Dold and Cocks (2000) also indicated that the rate of exploitation of this species in the Eastern Cape, particularly in the western reaches of the range was also a cause for concern and recommended that this species be placed in Schedule 3 (endangered) of the Nature Conservation Ordinance No. 19 of 1997. This species is not grazed by livestock and is therefore not in danger from farming practices, which are the main land use form across most of its range (Dold and Cocks 2000). Trampling by humans and livestock, rubbish dumping, competition with invasive alien species, and recreational activities are some of the other threats observed during surveys of all known subpopulations during the year 2018. Fire is thought to be an ecological requirement for this species' reproduction through stimulating flowering; thus, inappropriate fire regimes may threaten this species' persistence. In the coastal areas of KwaZulu-Natal, the habitat of this species has been severely impacted by development. Areas such as Uvongo, Inanda, Gillitts, and Camperdown, where the species was previously reported to occur, have been severely transformed by infrastructure development. At least 40% of its former habitat has been irreversibly transformed.

Between 10 and 36 subpopulations are likely to be extant based on extensive surveys undertaken across this species range in 2018. Of the 39 historic records, 17 could not be relocated, which indicates that at least 43% of historically recorded subpopulations have been lost. Field surveys in 2018 indicate that between 2460 and 2658 mature individuals are likely extant. Given that over 70 000 plants have been exported from South Africa since 1975, nursery audits indicate that 98% of these have evidence of being of wild origin, and a further 5 to 10 thousand individuals are suspected to have been harvested for local medicinal use, the population is inferred to have experienced a decline of 97% since 1975, which is within a three-generation time period for this species (generation length 20 years). Continuing loss due to harvesting for the ornamental specialist succulent and local medicinal trade, combined with habitat loss, is suspected to result in a further decline of at least 10% of the remaining population by 2035. Below is a summary of the remaining subpopulations: There are four known subpopulations in the Grahamstown area. One is found on open land, which is possibly used for recreational activities such as cycling. The area had been recently burned, and 73 individuals could be identified, with 52% of the population flowering. Low levels of trampling, possibly due to the recreational activities, and rubbish dumping could be observed at the site (<10%). Only one individual was found at the second site, which is within a protected area. Trampling by big game was the only plausible threat identified at this site. The third site was in a municipal commonage, and less than 10 plants were found in 2016, and aliens were abundant in the site. In 2018, 14 plants were found, none of which were flowering. Threats identified were harvesting, as digging was noted on the ground and candles and coins were found near plants, which suggests that traditional rituals may be performed at this site. Rubbish dumping as well as trampling were observed at low levels. Less than 50 plants were present at the fourth site, where the land is used for livestock farming. This subpopulation occurs at the edge of a township and near a brick factory, with a number of farms occurring in the area. The subpopulation near Stutterheim had between 100 and 250 plants in 2003. Farming livestock, alien plants, and foraging animals such as baboons and porcupines were listed as threats. In 2018, a subpopulation occurring on a timber plantation was identified in Stutterheim, which is possibly the same site as above. The area had been recently burned, and 63 plants were found, and 14% of the population was flowering. Threats included harvesting for medicinal use; trampling by livestock is a plausible threat at this site as cow dung could be found in the vicinity of the plants. The largest of the subpopulations surveyed was in King Williams Town, where more than 675 plants were counted. This subpopulation occurs on open land along the roadside. None of the plants were found to be in flower in 2018, although the subpopulation had been exposed to low levels of fire. This subpopulation is threatened by trampling, trash dumping, and recreational activities. An initiation school for the Xhosa community was found at this site in November 2018, and trampling might become a major threat to this subpopulation in the future. In Port Edward, the population was estimated to be between 50 and 100 in 2001. The plants were found in groups, and the veld had been recently burned and was in good condition. All the plants had been flowering and were scattered over a large area. In 2015, around 10-50 plants were observed. Harvesting was identified as a threat, as well as the burning regime not being well managed. In 2016, alien species were noted in the area, and the irregular burning regime was again marked as a threat. In 2018, only 27 plants could be found, with 85% of the population flowering. Harvesting and trampling were noted in the area; the site had recently been burned. Less than 10 plants were observed in a different section of the reserve, with no apparent threats to the subpopulation. Two subpopulations were located in East London, and the first had 282 plants, 5% of which were flowering. Recreational activities such as quad biking and outdoor fitness classes are held at this site, which could possibly threaten this subpopulation through trampling and vehicle damage. Harvesting was also reported at this site. The second subpopulation occurs on open land that is used for grazing livestock, possibly a municipal commonage. A complete count found 566 individuals. The site had recently been burned, and 64% of the individuals assessed were found to be in flower. Threats at this site include trampling, rubbish dumping, and possible grazing. The latex found in many euphorbias is known to deter animals from grazing on plants in this genus. Therefore, trampling by livestock rather than grazing is what threatens this subpopulation. In Fort Beaufort, 23 individuals were located at the site, and 13% were flowering. This reserve in which this species occurs does not administer any fires, and the grass was quite dense. There is a high chance that more plants could be present at this site that were undetectable. No threats were identified at this site, although the absence of fire is suspected to be causing this subpopulation to decline.

Population trend
The species is conserved in three nature reserves, while one subpopulation occurs on a timber plantation.
Assessment History
Taxon assessed
Status and Criteria
Citation/Red List version
Euphorbia bupleurifolia Jacq.Declining Raimondo et al. (2009)
Euphorbia bupleurifolia Jacq.Lower Risk - Least Concern Scott-Shaw (1999)
Euphorbia bupleurifolia Jacq.Not Threatened Hilton-Taylor (1996)

Dold, A.P. and Cocks, M. 2000. The use of Euphorbia bupleurifolia as a medicinal plant in the Eastern Cape. PlantLife 22:27-28.

Hilton-Taylor, C. 1996. Red data list of southern African plants. Strelitzia 4. South African National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.

Raimondo, D., von Staden, L., Foden, W., Victor, J.E., Helme, N.A., Turner, R.C., Kamundi, D.A. and Manyama, P.A. 2009. Red List of South African Plants. Strelitzia 25. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.

Scott-Shaw, C.R. 1999. Rare and threatened plants of KwaZulu-Natal and neighbouring regions. KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service, Pietermaritzburg.

Mhlongo, N.N. & Pfab, M.F. 2022. Euphorbia bupleurifolia Jacq. National Assessment: Red List of South African Plants version . Accessed on 2024/06/14

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Distribution map

© G. Nichols

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