|Cycas revoluta, one of the most primitive living
seed plants, are very unusual and popular ornamentals. A rugged trunk,
topped with whorled feathery leaves has lead to the common name "Sago Palm",
however it is actually related to conifer and Ginko trees - all cone bearing
plants which trace their origins back to the ancient flora of the early
Mesozoic era. Often called "living fossils", Cycads have changed very little
in the last 200 million years.
While various species of Cycads can be found throughout the world, the subtropical C. revoluta is native to the Far East and has been used as a choice container and landscape plant for centuries. The growth habit of Cycas revoluta displays an upright trunk with a diameter from 1" to 12" depending on age, topped with stiff feather-like leaves growing in a circular pattern. Rather than continuously adding foliage, Sagos produce a periodic "flush" of new leaves, called a "break". Eventually, offsets begin to grow at the base of the specimen, and occasionally in the crown. The addition of offsets provides a source of new plants and many possibilities for developing an unique specimen.
Regardless of age or size, Cycas revoluta is one of the easiest plants to grow, indoors or out, by beginner or expert. This subtropical adapts to a wide range of temperatures from 15 to 110 degrees F (-11 to 42 degrees C), accepts full sun or bright interior light, thrives with attention, and tolerates neglect. In addition, Cycads are extremely long-lived. A 220 year old specimen of Encephalartos, a relative of Cycas revoluta, is on display at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew England; the restoration of the famous Palm House required it to be temporarily transplanted to a holding area for more than a year; the move was successful and is an example of the durability of these ancient "living fossils".
|Care and Culture of Cycas
PROPAGATION is by seed
or removal of offsets called "pups".
Cycads are dioecious, having both males and females. In South Texas, females
sagos began to "flower" and male sagos produce "cones" in May when it is
time to pollinate.
We hand pollinate our own sagos, for more information, take this link. Sometimes, wind, bees, or insects can pollinate the plants. Seed develop in the female over the summer and are ready to be removed in January or February.
Soak seed in water for several days, then remove the red skin, but leave the white hard seed coat. They can be planted immediately, or retained in a cool, dry place until March or April. Plant seed sideways, with only the top edge exposed, in well drained soil and keep soil moist but not soggy. Seed will usually germinate in 3-9 months, but may require more than three years of growth to reach a small bulb size 1" in diameter. For more information about pollinating Sagos and growing them from seed, you will find a link to another page at the end of this article.
Offsets or "pups", growing at the base or along
the sides of mature Sagos, are an excellent source of new plants. Remove
them in early spring, late fall, or winter by using a hand trowel to pop
small ones from the trunk side, or a sharp-shooter shovel to dig and gently
crow-bar large ones from the base of the plant. Remove all the pups'
leaves and roots, then set them aside for the raw spot to dry for a week
or so. Plant in well-drained soil or a sandy mixture so that half
the ball or trunk is below soil level - water thoroughly. Allow the soil
to become nearly dry before watering. It's best to start new pups in a
shady area or a bright indoor area. 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.
Allow the new plants to form a good root system before repotting into a
larger container or planting in your garden or landscape. Warning! Removing
pups can be very hard work on large Sagos with lots of babies.
TEMPERATURE RANGE is from 15 to 110 degrees F (-11 to 42 C). Temperatures in the high teens may frost-damage leaves which may turn yellow or brown. Remove these to reduce stress on the plant and encourage new leaves in the spring. If temperatures fall below 15, the sago may die, however, as long as the trunk and leaf crown is hard wood, it should recover. If the trunk turns soft, your sago may be damaged beyond recovery. Our field of sago palms survived 11 degrees, a century low in South Texas, however large live oak trees planted throughout the "sago patch" provided some protection. We removed all the damaged leaves and the sagos grew new ones the following spring.
HUMIDITY range is from dry to wet.
LIGHT: Sagos grow in full sun, but adapt to outdoor shade or an indoor area which receives bright light or a few hours of morning or afternoon sun.
RATE OF GROWTH is extremely slow. The fastest rate observed in South Texas commercial production (which has excellent growing conditions of hot summers and mild winters) under 30% shade is three new sets of leaves and an increase of 1" (3 cm) of height and trunk diameter per year. When grown as potted indoor specimens, Cycads may add only one set of new leaves every year or two and remain somewhat the same size (one reason they are excellent for bonsai).
LONGEVITY: Cycas revoluta are extremely
long lived and old specimens can grow in curious ways. The multi-trunk
and multiple branched specimen shown below was planted at the Huntington
Gardens in San Marino, California over 80 years ago and is 15' (5 m) tall
with a clump diameter of 12' (4 m).
PRONUNCIATION: sAgo (long A) often mistakenly pronounced or spelled sego (see-go) palm.
SOIL should be well drained and rich in humus, although these durable plants seem to grow in almost anything. In the landscape or garden, be sure to plant Sagos slightly above the soil line and not in a hole or depression which retains water or is "swampy". Sagos much prefer to be on the dry than the wet side.
WATER AND FERTILIZER needs are related to the amount of light available. Unlike most plants which can wilt when dry or turn yellow from lack of fertilizer, Cycads give little indication of when to water or feed. Generally, they should be treated as a cactus and watered when almost dry.
WATERING: If grown in a container, allow the soil to become almost dry, then water thoroughly slowly adding water around the top of the soil. If the plant is receiving morning or afternoon sun or temperatures are warm, Sagos may need to be watered at least weekly. Plants grown in low light or cool temperatures may need water every few weeks or so. We generally water a plant twice. The first time wets the soil, the second watering a few minutes later soaks the soil. If planted in the landscape, water when dry, but do not keep continuously wet. Established plants can easily survive drought conditions.
FERTILIZER is generally applied during spring and late summer. Sagos growing in partial sun should receive an average rate as listed on the container, those in low light should receive only 1/4 rate. Too little plant food is far better than too much. If organic or slow release fertilizer is used, do not allow any to fall into the plant crown which is protecting the formation of future leaves.
OLD LEAVES MAY TURN YELLOW from over watering or too much fertilizer.
NEW LEAVES MAY TURN YELLOW from excess fertilizer or poor soil conditions.
Note: Once leaves turn yellow or brown, they should be removed from the plant.
INSECTS are limited to scale (can form a white
or gray crust) or occasional attacks of mealy bugs. Use an insecticidal
soap or a product labeled for scale. In all cases, use caution and follow
the directions on the container. Always water a plant before treatment
or spraying during the coolest part of the day or morning. The combination
of heat, direct sun, and insecticide can burn leaves. If your Sago seems
to have an insect or fungus on the leaves, remove one or two and take them
to your nearest Garden Center for identification and recommended treatment.
REPOTTING is best done in spring or summer. Cycads prefer to be root bound and should be repotted into a container only slightly larger than the root system. If roots are trimmed for bonsai use, remove a comparable amount of lower leaves.
PLANTING IN THE LANDSCAPE OR GARDEN: Sagos do not like to be planted in a low area where they might stay continuously wet; they do best when established in a well-drained area, or when planted slightly (an inch or so) above ground level. Also, be aware that these plants can eventually become quite large with a leaf span of over 6' (2 m) in diameter. Choose an area which will allow ample room for future growth and one which is not located next to walkways or too close to buildings or homes.
PRUNING LEAVES and "SPRUCING UP" your Sago palm should be done at least once a year. Oldest and lowest leaves eventually have brown tips or turn brown (to allow the plant energy to go to growing new leaves) and should be removed. Cut as close to the trunk as possible. If new leaves emerge yellow or distorted, then you have probably been over or under fertilizing. Cut them off immediately so that the Cycad will start making a new set of leaves.
TOXICITY: The seed and plant parts of Cycas revoluta are not for
consumption and is often confused with a true palm tree Mextroxylon, also
called Sago Palm, which is used for food in tropical countries. For
more information about THAT palm, take this link: Metroxylon
If it is a relatively small one with trunk diameter of 4" or less, it won't be a big problem. First remove all but the uppermost ring of leaves - you will damage some roots in the transplant process so you must reduce the number of leaves to one ring of the topmost leaves - remove all others. This will also help you see the base of the plant while you are digging. Use a sharp shooter shovel (one that is straight and narrow, plus sharp at the end) and dig about 6" away from the trunk, at least 12" deep while retaining as many roots as possible. Using the shovel, gently crowbar it out of the ground.
Move it to a pre-dug hole slightly larger than the root-ball of the plant. Center the plant in the hole, being sure that the soil level is slightly above the old one, about an 1" (add soil to the bottom of the hole if needed). Backfill with a mixture of 1/2 peat moss and 1/2 garden soil that was removed from the hole. Water when the soil becomes almost dry. If transplanting is successful, new leaves will emerge by summer. It often takes a year or two for the Cycad to actively resume normal growth.
If you prefer to put the big sago in a large pot or box instead of planting it, use a container only slightly larger than the rootball.
If it is a large sago, with a trunk diameter of 6" or more and trunk height of over 12", then you will need plenty of help. Sago trunks and roots can be very heavy. Use the same procedure above, but dig a larger, deeper root-ball and hole.
If you have never transplanted a large palm or Cycad, then call your local landscape contractor and arrange to have them do it. I remember the first one our nursery ever dug - with a trunk diameter of 12" and height of 5'. It took two men an hour to dig the root ball, then we found it all so heavy that we had to bring our farm winch truck just to lift it out of the ground! Unless you have a winch truck handy, don't even try it. We moved about 2 more large ones over the years and then decided it was just too much trouble!
VALUE of huge old landscape specimens can vary depending on what part
of the country you are in - visit your local garden centers to check prices
or call a landscaper.
In the Rhapis Gardens collection is a fine subject
with an interesting history. During a harsh winter with a "century low"
of 11 degrees F, it froze, withered into a donut-shaped lump of trunk (leafless,
rootless, and centerless) and was tossed aside as a bad weather casualty.
The following spring, someone noticed that it was sprouting roots and a
ring of offsets. Retrieved and potted, this sago has grown into an unusual
specimen with numerous sago heads surrounding an empty center. What seemed
a total loss transformed into a one-of-a-kind "multi-head" masterpiece.
This specimen is shown below in a short 12" (30 cm) Bonsai Pot & Saucer.
MULTI-HEAD SAGOS are an unusual creation of Mother Nature. While large Sagos often produce new offshoots at the base or sides of the trunk and eventually grow into huge multi-branched clumps, this species occasionally produces a cluster of heads in the crown as shown by the one on the left above. Small multi-head and multi-trunk sagos in 6" to 10" (15 to 25 cm) pots are extremely rare and provide unique additions to indoor plant collections. They are fabulous when used as bonsai.
|Variegated Cycas Revoluta:
Variegated Cycas revoluta are extremely rare. In the numerous specimens grown at Rhapis Gardens during the last 20 years, only a few exhibit striped leaves. One of the most interesting has yellow "stripes" as illustrated above. Another has light blue-green streaks throughout the leaves which are more coarse and thicker than normal as shown in the photo and inset below.
I hope you have enjoyed learning more about Cycas revoluta.
Each day I receive lots of email asking questions about "what's wrong with my Sago" - far too many for me to answer! Usually, the answer to a question can be found within this article and the "growing from seed" or "Sago Palm Pups" article linked to this one.
If you have a question about your garden planted or outdoor sago, contact your local garden center for advice. Each region of the country has different soils, water quality, and climate. Plants may need fertilizers related to your soil conditions. So, it is impossible for me to determine what the plant problem might be related to your area.
If you are growing your Sago as a houseplant and have a problem, then it's best to contact the place you purchased it from. Sagos are grown all over the U.S. and very few nurseries grow them in shade, as we do, for houseplant use. So, I suspect that if you purchased a Sago from a garden center that it was sun grown for outdoor use and has far too much fertilizer in the soil and plant system to successfully become a indoor plant.
People often wonder the value of their ancient landscape Sago - prices vary from one end of the country to another - contact your local Garden Center and inquire, or go visit one and see if they have one the same size and what the cost is.
If you HAVE purchased a Sago palm from Rhapis Gardens, then feel free to send an email - I can probably answer your question since my greenhouse operation grew it. We use a custom blended soil, mild fertilizers, shaded greenhouses, and it should successfully become one of your favorite indoor or patio plants.
-- Lynn McKamey,
|To find out how to pollinate and grow Sagos from seed, take this
LINK to page 2 of this article.
To learn how to grow Sagos from pups (offsets), take this LINK.