The scientific name for the Sago Palm is – Cycas revoluta. This tough and very tropical-looking plant is not a palm at all but a cycad.
Cycads are known to be among the oldest plants on earth, unchanged for millions of years, originating in East Africa. That is why they are often referred to as “living fossils”.
Surprisingly, while cycads do look similar to palms, they are more closely related to pine trees than to palms. In fact, cycads are cone-bearing, woody plants with male and female plants producing cones similar to those of pine.
Cycas revoluta is very cold hardy palm and can be grown in states like Alaska, Alabama, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee and more.
|Scientific name:||Cycas revoluta|
|Common names:||Sago Palm, Japanese Sago Palm, King Sago Palm, Sago Cycas.|
|Origin:||Native to Japan.|
|Growth Rate:||Very Slow. Up to 7-10ft tall and 4-8 ft wide.|
|Cold Tolerance:||USDA Zones 8b (15 to 20 F) to 11 (above 40 F).|
|Light Req:||Full sun.|
|Soil Req:||Widely adaptable.|
|Fruit:||Yes. Red. Not edible.|
|Propagation:||By seeds, germinating in 4-9 months. By removal of offshoots or pups.|
Sago Palm Appearance
Cycas revoluta is a very slow growing palm that can get up to 7-10ft tall. It could take 70-100 years for the Sago Palm to reach its maximum height.
Young specimens have thick shaggy subterranean trunk 8-10 inches in diameter. Trunks can branch multiple times, creating multiple heads of leaves. As the cycad matures, it might produce suckers at its base forming a large multi-stem clump over time.
Sago palm has pinnate, or feather-like, leaves that are 4-5ft long and 10 inches wide. It is a very symmetrical plant with fronds growing in a circular pattern creating a rosette.
Leaves are dark green, glossy, with stiff, pointed leaflets. Leaflets are narrow, only 4-7 inches long and have strongly recurved edges. In late spring or early summer, sagos produce a light green spikes of new leaves, called a ‘break’. They slowly unfold growing to the ultimate length of the leaf.
Sago Palm Flowers and Fruits
It takes sago palm around 13 years to start to bloom. They are dioecious, meaning that each plant is either male or female which is quite unique for a tropical plant.
The female inflorescence is feather like, later forming a tightly packed seed head that looks like a ‘cabbage’ covered by whitish miniature leaves. The male cone is pineapple or torpedo shaped. Male cones tent to be smaller, more narrow and sometimes more elongated than female cones.
Occasionally, there are a greater number of male cones compared to female cones on a plant. In the wild, the pollen from the male cone is distributed to a female by insects and beetles as well as the wind.
When pollinated successfully, fertile seeds develop inside of the female cones that will eventually germinate to produce a small seedling.
Interestingly, a female cannot produce fertile seeds unless pollinated. At first, an isolated female might produce seeds that look good but will not germinate due to lack of inner embryo.
How To Care For Sago Palm
One of the great advantages of the sago palm is that it’s very easy to grow. This is a durable plant that can take a fair amount of abuse and neglect.
You can dig it out and re-plant it if you are redesigning your landscape or even take it with you when you move. In addition, this is a great plant to order online because it can easily tolerate being stuck in a box for a week without water while it’s being shipped.
It also is salt an cold tolerant, can adapt to wide ranges of soil, and endure heat and drought. All these features make this palm perfect for someone who lives in cooler climate, is trying to conserve water, wants a small plant and prefers minimum maintenance.
It thrives in full sun but can also tolerate partial shade. Usually, the amount of sunlight depends on the conditions it is grown in. In hot desert type of climate, it is better to provide it with sun half of the day. On the other hand, in the coastal areas full sun will work best.
It will do ok with some partial shade but too much shade will make it weak and unhealthy looking. It might develop long stretched-out leaves or could even stall to the point that it will stop growing any new fronds.
If you are growing it indoors, place it near a bright window so it gets as much sunlight as possible. You can move it outside during warm months to provide it with more sunlight, as long as you increase the light levels gradually.
It can grow in either acidic of alkaline soil as long as it quick draining. However, in alkaline soils it might develop a manganese deficiency if not fed regularly.
The ideal soil would be sandy with rich organic matter and slightly acidic. For container sagos, use a potting mix specially made for palms.
Like many other cycads, they are drought tolerant, but prefer regular watering. Let the soil dry a bit before watering again. Water it more frequently during summer and less frequently during winter when plant is not growing actively.
Sagos hate soggy soil, so it’s important not to overwater them. Also, avoid overhead watering since it can cause foliage rot or even decay of the plant.
Container sagos should be watered with filtered or distilled water to avoid chemical and salt deposits.
Sago palms are usually fine without fertilization. The yellowing or browning of the lower fronds is a natural process unless the yellowing is occurring in the center “new growth” area.
If new fronds soon turn yellow and head for brown, you have a nutrition problem. Sometimes sago palm may take a year or two or more to develop the “quick yellowing” symptom.
This problem is easily corrected by application of low-release fertilizer twice a year during growing season.
Use good quality fertilizer that has NPK ratio of 15-5-15 or 10-10 where there is the same amount of Nitrogen and Potassium. The higher the number, the stronger the fertilizer is. Avoid using cheap fertilizers that will wash away after couple of rains.
Sagos are very cold tolerant making them ideal for growing in USDA Zones 8b (15 to 20 F) to 11 (above 40 F).
It can easily take temperatures ranging from 20 – 25F but will get leaf damage if temperatures drop below 15F. While it might survive 10F, it will be completely defoliated.
The good news is, that with some cold protection a defoliated sago palm can be overwintered in zone 7. It should quickly recover the following growing season. Outside of zone 8, using microclimate might be the key to growing sagos successfully.
It’s best to only trim sago fronds when they are completely dead, which will be brown. Although some people feel the need to remove yellowing fronds for aesthetic reasons, this is not recommended, as sagos use these leaves for nutrients.
As leaves are turning yellow and then brown, the plant moves the nutrients from dying fronds to the new ones. By removing dying leaves too early you are robbing the plant of its food. Excessive leaf removal can stunt the growth and weaken the plant.
Furthermore, a weakened palm might be susceptible to pets and diseases. Try to prune only badly damaged, completely dead or diseased fronds.
The fruit and flower stalks can also be removed if not needed. Use only clean disinfected tools to avoid spreading an infection from other plants.
Cut the oldest and lowest leaves as close to the trunk as possible without damaging the trunk. Never trim any green fronds below horizontal plane of the crown.
Insects and Diseases
Sago palms usually don’t have serious issues with pests or diseases. However, occasional encounter with scale and spider mites might cause a problem.
Also, all cycads, including king sago are highly susceptible to potentially devastating Asian cycad scale. Inspect your plant closely looking for damaged or discolored fronds, as well as tiny bugs. Try to use natural treatment before turning to harsh chemicals.
Sago Palm Propagation
Propagation of sago palms is either by seed or by removal of offshoots or pups. Seeds will germinate within 3-9 months. But it may require more than three years of growth to reach a small bulb size of 1″ in diameter.
Soak seed in water for several days, then remove the red skin, but leave the white hard seed coat. Plant the seed in well drained soil. Keep the plant in warm, lightly moist conng and the older specimen will develop a thick, stout trunk about 9″ and reach a height of 6 feet.
Sago can be propagated by offsets or pups. Remove the pups growing at the base or along the sides of mature Sagos. Remove all the leaves and roots from the pups. Allow the raw spot to dry and plant in well-drained soil or a sandy mixture so that half the ball or trunk is below soil level. Water thoroughly to ensure rapid growth.
Roots will slowly begin to form and the first leaves appear several months later. At that time, apply a mild dose of fertilizer and water when almost, but not completely dry. Before re potting, allow the new plants to form a good root system.
Growing Sago Palm Indoors
Sago palm make a great container plant. It’s slow growing, drought tolerant and adapts to different soil types. Whether grown indoors or outdoors, it will add a tropical feel to any setting.
While sago can tolerate drought conditions, it likes to be watered regularly. However, it hates soggy soil, so allow for the soil to dry between watering. Fertilize with good quality slow-release fertilizer during growing season.
Since it likes full sun, find a bright spot near the window where it can get some direct sunlight during the day but is not directly under a vent. Use container with plenty of root depth, at least 15 inches deep, to allow for the root system to spread. It might get stunted if not given enough root room.
Unlike many houseplants that need repotting every year, you can repot sago palm every three years or less. However, you should replace old loose soil with some fresh mix every year even if you are still using the same container.
Keep in mind, all parts of sago palm are very toxic to human and to pets. If you have cats, dogs or little kids that might chew on the leaves, you might want to consider getting a different plant.
Frequently Asked Questions
In this section I want to answer some of the most popular questions I get about this plant.
Is Sago Palm Toxic?
Yes, it is. According to ASPCA, ALL PARTS of the sago palm are toxic to people and pets. The most poisonous part of the sago are the seeds. If you have small kids, dogs or cats, try to keep it away from them.
This plant is poisonous to pets including cats and dogs. Some signs of toxicity include vomiting, seizures, drooling, and abdominal pain. This plant can kill a dog or a cat, so head to the vet hospital right away.
Why Is My Sago Palm Turning Yellow?
If you notice that your Sago palm bottom leaves are getting yellow, be aware that the natural course of leaves on plants, including palms and cycads, is first green, then turning yellow, and finally brown.
The yellow stage is where the lower frond is losing its chlorophyll as it is being re-absorbed into the plant. The final brown stage is the completion of the nutrients re-absorption process and is nothing to worry about.
If you cut off sago fronds too soon, you are actually depriving your sago palm of its natural technique to conserve nutrients. Best is to wait until a frond is totally brown and shriveled up small pieces.
Another reason, could be nutrient deficiency. Apply slow-release fertilizer and wait to see if the new fronds comes out looking ok. Keep in mind, the yellow leaves will not turn green again even after you fix the problem. Too little sun or too much moister can also cause yellow leaves.
How Fast Do Sago Palms Grow?
This slow growing palm grows about 1 to 2 inches a year. Generally, it grows larger and faster when planted in the ground than in the container because it has better access to water and nutrients.
However, the growth rate of this palm depends on the conditions and environment it is planted in. Full sun, plenty of water, fast draining soil, and enough nutrients will increase the health and the growth rate of this plant.
Regardless, it can take about 8 to 10 years for it to grow a foot of trunk. If you see a sago with 5 feet trunk, it is probably about 30 years old.
Other Sago Palm Varieties
While Cycas revoluta is the most popular cycad, there are other plants that use the common name of sago palm. The other species include:
- Metroxylon sagu (True sago palm): Unlike Cycas revoluta, this plant is a true multi-stemmed evergreen palm tree that grows to about 20ft tall.
- Cycas rumphii (Queen sago palm): This cycad grows more like a tree than a shrub, reaching around 33 feet in height and is native to Indonesia, New Guineaand Christmas Island.
- Cycas circinalis (Queen sago palm): This is a slow growing plant, tree-like, reaching around 11 feet in height, and is native to India.