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Widdringtonia comprises four species endemic to southern Africa, of which W. nodiflora is the most widespread, stretching from the Cape to Mount Mulanje in southern Malawi. The remaining three species are isolated in the Clanwilliam (W. cedarbergensis) and Willowmore (W. schwarzii) districts of South Africa and on Mount Mulanje (W. whytei Rendle). Widdringtonia are generally small evergreen trees or shrubs, with fragrant wood. Their habit is extremely variable and depends on environmental and human factors. Initially, the young plants are conical or pyramidal; they may remain this shape, or, more frequently, develop a wide, flat-topped crown in maturity. Widdringtonia nodiflora is often coppiced by fire, and then develops into a large, multistemmed shrub. As in many Cupressaceae, there are two leaf forms: the juvenile leaves are spirally arranged and needle-like, the mature leaves scale-like, decussate or alternate, and appressed; the lateral and facial pairs are similar, with sharp, acute apices. The male strobili are terminal and solitary on short, lateral branchlets, with (five to) six (to seven) decussate microsporophylls. The female cones are axillary, solitary or in whorls of four (rarely five or six) on elongated shoots; they are roughly globose, valvate, often rather resinous, and mature in one year, though cones at varying stages of development can be found on a single tree at any time of the year. The seed scales are arranged in a whorl of four (occasionally five to six); they are thick and woody, with a smooth or warty external face. Each scale bears several seeds, which are released after fires; smoke may stimulate germination. The seeds are ovoid or three-angled, with a dark, papery wing; their dark colouring may protect them from predation by birds, by camouflaging them against recently burnt ground (Masters 1904, Palmer & Pitman 1972, Coates Palgrave 1990, Pauw & Linder 1997, Glen 2000, Farjon 2005c).
Botanising in the embarrassingly rich flora of southern Africa is a daunting prospect for those used to lesser diversity, and amid the plethora of unfamiliar families it is reassuring to have no doubts over the identification of Widdringtonia – the only native conifers south of the Zambesi, with the exception of the solitary Juniperus procera in Zimbabwe. Unlike Juniperus, however, the affinities of Widdringtonia lie with other Gondwanan conifers, it being closely related to Diselma Hook. f. (Tasmania) and Fitzroya Lindl. (South America). Although in many areas it forms part of the fire-maintained fynbos community, the genus has an uncomfortable relationship with fire: a blaze is essential for seed survival and germination, but is the main cause of mortality in mature trees.
This interesting little genus is an inevitable temptation to collectors, and as seed is regularly available from South Africa, young plants occasionally appear in the gardens of those interested in South African plants in general: seedlings of W. cedarbergensis, for example, have been sold in recent years by Pine Cottage Plants, Devon – a nursery specialising in Agapanthus! Unfortunately, in the British Isles at least, their chances of developing into a significant tree are slim if judged by past experience; Tom Hudson (pers. comm. 2005) regards them as hopeless cases. They have a greater chance of success in areas with a defined Mediterranean climate, where frosts are light. In our area this effectively means a limited area of northern California and adjacent Oregon, though possibly also some sheltered sites in southeastern England. Excessive wetness should be avoided at all times, and watering should probably be sparse in summer to avoid root rot, but they are not difficult to grow as potted specimens. Propagation from seed is easy and does not require a conflagration.