For an impressive dose of prehistoric drama, consider sago palm (Cycas revoluta).
Like ferns, these giant beauties have been around since before the dinosaurs, and their stunning display is truly evocative of an age long gone.
And while “palm” is part of their common name, they’re not really palms at all. They’re cycads, a group of seed plants with ancient roots related to cone-bearing conifers.
Other names for sago palm include king sago, palm cycad, or Japanese funeral palm. Native to the southern-most island of Japan, the leaves were traditionally used in funeral arrangements in the land of the rising sun.
Sago grows slowly when confined to a pot, and it is also a favorite choice for bonsai.
Let’s learn more!
Pink or Blue?
Gardeners north of zone 8 must grow these ancient wonders in pots and bring them indoors to overwinter, but those of us in zones 8-10 get to enjoy them in our landscapes.
Here in Austin, my sagos have suffered leaf burn during a couple of winters when temperatures sank into the low 20s for one or two nights, but otherwise, they overwinter perfectly well.
I just cut out the “burned” fronds and place them decoratively in a large planter on my porch. The original plant is fine, and I have the added bonus of a nice dried arrangement.
The dried fronds are fairly “pokey,” though, so displays should be placed in a low-traffic area.
When grown outdoors, C. revoluta may get as tall as 10 to 12 feet, though the ones I see in Austin are closer to about 5 feet tall. Here they are also typically allowed to fall into a spreading, half-round form, rather than the more upright, palm tree-like form that results when the lower fronds are trimmed off.
The leaves are typically about 4 to 5 feet long.
Sago palms are poisonous to humans and pets, something to keep in mind if you have a dog who likes to experiment with new cuisines. Our dogs have never bothered our sagos.
Each sago palm is either male or female. In spring, males produce a 12- to 24-inch-tall cone, whereas females produce a leaf structure resembling a basket and produces ovules. The “basket” opens when the plant is ready to be fertilized by pollen from the male carried by wind or insects.
Do You Want More?
This plant can be propagated via division, as well. New clusters may form near the base of the plant. These suckers or pups can be cut off and planted elsewhere.
Don’t procrastinate if you are going to attempt this process; once the pups get too large, it’s very difficult to successfully propagate them. Get them before they’re a foot tall.
Clear the dirt from around the base of the pup. Grasp the base of the pup and gently wiggle it to pop it off. If it’s grown too large, you may have to cut it off.
Pinch or cut off any leaves that are sprouting from the pup. Place separated pups in the shade for a week to heal the wound, then choose a pot that’s a couple inches larger in diameter than the pup.
Fill the pot with a fast-draining blend of sand, perlite, and peat moss, or a container mix. Dig a hole and place the pup in the hole with the wound side down.
Water thoroughly, and let the soil dry out before watering again. Keep the plant in the shade until it has rooted, which can take several months.
You can also propagate these ancient beauties from seed. In a small pot, press the seed into the soil with the flat side up, keeping about one-third of the seed above soil level, and place the pot in a warm area. Sago seeds will germinate in temperatures of 70 to 100°F.
Tamp the soil down around the seed, water well, and cover the pot with plastic to keep the moisture in.
Keep the soil moist, and when the seed germinates, you can remove the plastic wrap. If you live in a hospitable area, you can plant the palms outside after about three years. Otherwise, re-pot into successively larger containers as the plant grows larger.
Where to Buy
You can find C. revoluta seeds from Seeds and Things, available via Amazon.
These seeds have been tested to see if they float. If sago palm seeds don’t sink to the bottom of a container of water, it means they haven’t been pollinated and won’t germinate.
If you’re looking for a potted sago palm, consider this offering from Garden Goods Direct, also available via Amazon.
You have the choice between a live plant in a 6-inch pot, or a larger one in a 10-inch container.
Where to Plant
This plant can tolerate full sun, and will also do well in partially shaded areas, where it will likely produce larger leaves.
They aren’t picky about soil. Mine have thrived in average, non-amended garden soil.
Outdoor sagos are fairly drought-tolerant, and can go weeks without supplemental water. No supplemental fertilizer is needed, either.
Indoors, you’ll want to keep the soil moist. Once a month during the growing season, apply a 18-8-18 water-soluble fertilizer at a rate of one teaspoon per gallon of water.
C. revoluta is susceptible to scale, which can be managed by blasting the plant with water to wash the invaders away, or by using a horticultural oil such as this one from Bonide, available via Amazon.
Also keep an eye out for mealy bugs, which can be managed with insecticidal soap. Try this one from Garden Safe, available through Amazon.
The spray is ready to use.
Where Will You Plant Yours?
While C. revoluta makes a spectacular landscape plant for those of us in the Southern United States, gardeners in other parts of the country can enjoy these prehistoric wonders indoors.
Sun or shade, good dirt or bad, this dramatic palm-like plant loves hot, humid conditions and rewards with a singular display.
Have you ever grown sago palm? Indoors or out? Share your experience in the comments section below. And for more information about growing houseplants, check out this article.
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Photos © Ralph Barrera, used with permission. Male sago photo by Gretchen Heber, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product images via Seeds and Things, Garden Goods Direct, Bonide, and Garden Safe. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
About Gretchen Heber
A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.