Sago Palm – A Trip Back in Time
A sago palm is not really a palm tree but rather a cycad. These plants have primitive origins and fossils have been found on nearly every continent. The species of cycad most frequently grown as a houseplant is the cycas revoluta or sago palm.
Cycads are the oldest plants currently growing on the earth. Fossils of cycads dating back 270 to 280 million years have been found in some areas of China. At their height, they were the dominant type of plant life some 150 to 200 million years ago. They spread to nearly every continent to habitats ranging from cold to tropical rain forest.
Cycas revoluta, commonly called the sago palm, was native to the tropics from Madagascar to Japan. These plants are survivors and can tolerate a wide range of conditions in their environment.
Sago palms prefer moderate to bright light but should be sheltered from the hottest rays of the midday and afternoon sun. Turn the plant once a week to keep the plant shapely as it will reach for the light.
Cycas revoluta is hardy outdoors from zones 8 to 11 (15oF to 110oF) so can tolerate any temperature that is thrown at it indoors.
Sago palms should be watered thoroughly and then allowed to dry between waterings. The brighter the light and the warmer the temperature, the more water your cycad will need. Reduce watering in the winter as both the amount of light and the temperature will be reduced. If the foliage starts to yellow, it is being over watered. Once the leaves turn yellow they should be removed to reduce the stress on the plant. Remove them by cutting them as close to the trunk as possible.
Cycads will grow in almost any medium as long as it is well drained. Plant the cone with 1/2 of it above the soil so it will not be kept too wet by the soil around it. The roots will go down into the soil to gather the moisture and nutrients the plant needs.
When repotting in the spring or summer, choose a pot that is only slightly larger than the root system.
Cycads are very slow growing plants. They usually grow by adding a burst of new plastic like leaves and then appear to not grow until another burst of new growth occurs. Don’t discard your sago palm if it appears to be not growing. It may be a year or more between spurts of growth.
The two methods of propagation are by seeds or by dividing offsets called pups that the cycad produces around its trunk, mainly near the base but also up the trunk.
Sago palms are dioecious, which means they are either male or female. You need both to produce a fertilized seed. You can only tell if the plant is male or female after the reproductive cones have been produced.
It takes many years for a cycad to reach the stage where it will produce offsets. These offsets, called pups, can be removed after they have reached about 2 inches in diameter. They should be carefully removed or cut off and then cleaned removing any leaves and roots. The pup should then be allowed to dry out for about a week to harden it.
After the pup has been hardened it should be planted into a pot that is about 2 inches larger than its diameter. Fill the pot with soil and water well. Then set the pup on top of the soil and press down until approximately 1/2 of the pup is set in the soil. Sago palm are very slow growing and it will take a minimum of 3 months before you see any growth of new leaves.
Your sago palm can be kept small by the bonsai technique of trimming the roots and keeping the plant in a small pot.
If you wish a larger specimen, you can transplant it into successively larger pots as it grows. For a large specimen you will need a rather large pot. This growth will take years as cycads are a very slow growing plant. Older leaves will yellow and die as the plant ages. These should be cut off to reduce stress to the plant and improve its appearance. New leaves will grow in to replace them.
Sago palms are highly toxic if eaten. They contain cycasin and BMAA in most parts of the plant. Some cultures use the starchy trunk of the sago palm as food, but only after it has been processed and soaked to remove the toxicity.
Cycas revoluta like the bright light near a window, preferably south or west facing. They will tolerate somewhat less light but that would stunt their already very slow growth. When you buy a sago palm, you need to purchase one that is not too much smaller than the size of the plant envisioned for the location that you are placing it. You need not worry about the cycad outgrowing its chosen location soon. Cycas revoluta will grow so slowly that you will wonder if it is alive. And when you feel the stiff leaves you may even wonder if they have sold you a plastic sago palm.