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Cycas
Sago Palms
CYCADACEAE

Cycas revolutaThis palm-like plant is really not a palm at all, but related to the conifer and ginkgo trees. They are all cone bearing plants. The cycads are sometimes referred to as "living fossils" because they have changed little in the 200 million years since the Mesozoic Era.

There are about 15 species of cycads, but I will address the most popular one, which is the Cycas revoluta. It is native to the Far East and sometimes also called the Japanese Sago Palm.

In the Southern zones of United States, there are three species. The Cycas revoluta (king sago palm), the Cycas circinalis (queen sago palm), and the Cycas taitungensis (prince / emperor sago palm).

Generally, the temperature range of all sago is 15 to 110 degrees F.

The queen sago can only withstand temperatures down to 55 degrees F.

The king sago will tolerate colder temperatures, surviving short periods of 32 degrees F, if given some protection. The king sago also will grow larger, sometimes reaching heights up to six feet.

Double Male SagoThe prince sago is also cold hardy and a faster grower than the king sago.

The humidity range is from dry to wet which is a pretty large range.

It is reported that sagos will grow faster in the landscape than as a container plant. For the most part, they are very easy to grow. Full sun or partial shade is ideal. As with most plants, good drainage is important. In addition, a neutral pH soil is best (6.5 to 7.0). It is good to fertilize on a regular basis during the growing season, which is generally March through September. A county agent once suggested if you are trying to really increase the size of the sago plant to use a palm fertilizer four times a year. That would be in March, May, July, and September. Some suggest to fertilize when the new growth emerges in the spring. Most sagos will only have one sprout of crowning - called a "break" per year. However, with extra fertilization there may be a second crown of fronds.

Note: Palm Fertilizer has the "minor" elements such as iron, zinc, manganese, magnesium, that palms and sagos need to flourish.

It is best to remember when the new leaves emerge for the season they do so in a circular pattern and are tender. At this time, do not transplant your sago.

Female Sago SeedsAs mentioned before, the rate of growth is somewhat slow to medium. Under the best of conditions with hot summers and mild winters there have been reports of three new sets of leaves and an increase of one inch in trunk height. Do not expect this under normal conditions. Definitely not as container plants and because of this they are ideal bonsai specimens.

Sago will grow in full sun outside and acclimate to some shade. However, the acclimation towards being an indoor houseplant is good if given bright light or some morning and afternoon sun.

Female Sago PlantIt is important to note that sagos generally produce seed every other year. One can easily tell the difference between a female sago and male sago. Both develop cones. These are clusters of modified leaves. These leaves will protect the pollen and the future developing seeds from drying out. The male plants will form an elongated cone-like upright structure. The female has a rounded soft velvet-like center. The seeds will be bright orange in color.

Problems

As with most plants, there are some problems to look out for. A condition called frizzle top is probably the most common problem. This is a manganese deficiency causing the new leaves or upper leaves to turn yellow. This will start as spots and eventually the entire leaf is covered. There is a way to correct this. Spray the leaves with manganese sulfate. Once a month for three months mix one teaspoon of manganese sulfate per gallon of water. You can also apply one to five pounds (gauging with the size of the plant) of manganese to the soil in the springtime to correct or prevent the problem. Along with this recommendation, it is always wise to have a soil pH check and to check the moisture content of the soil. As always, too much water and less than desirable drainage will cause root damage. If that is the case, the sago will be unable to absorb the nutrients.

scale on sago palmThe most common insect problem sagos have are scale insects. The magnolia white scale being the most common.

Recently there is a scale from Southeast Asia that is becoming very serious. To date nothing has been able to fight the condition. The affected cycads are coated with a white crust. Scales will suck all the juices out of the leaves and the cycad will die in a matter of weeks.

Another consideration with the sagos is cold damage. When temperatures reach dangerous levels, many people cover their plants during a freeze. If the central growing area is protected the plant will survive. If the leaves turn brown, they will not return to green. It is best to trim these off when the weather warms up but not until then.

Here are some other conditions that may indicate a problem.

Old leaves may turn yellow from over watering or too much fertilizer.

New leaves may turn yellow from excessive fertilizer and in general poor soil conditions.

The yellowing and browning leaves can be removed from the plant with no harm to the mother plant and will enhance the beauty of the sago. When trimming cut as close to the trunk as possible. This will encourage new leaves to emerge also.

Propagation

Propagating is by seed and from the pups or offsets at the base of the plant.

Propagating by seed will require some patience. Wait until the seeds are mature, usually when the cone has fallen apart. Dr. Dehgan of the University of Florida states that the success of the seeds will increase if the seeds are refrigerated at 45 to 55 degrees F for two months. At this point, the outer pulp of the seeds can be removed. You may also want to serrate the seeds to encourage germination. Plant the seeds sideways in a well-drained soil; keep moist but not soggy. Germination will take place in three to nine months. I suggest you wear gloves since cycads contain carcinogens, which can be absorbed by the skin.

Propagation is more fun with an immediate plant already in hand. The side shoots or pups sometimes are produced after a severe winter or trunk injury. When separating them from the mother plant be careful not to injure the base plant. They can be removed early spring, late fall, or winter. A hand trowel will work nicely. You may want to let the pups cure for a few days before planting them. Planting should be done in a well-drained soil, probably a sandy mixture is better. Be sure that 1/2 of the ball or trunk is below soil level. Settle in with water, but then do not water until it is thoroughly dried. For acclimation and protection do this in partial shade.

Rooting will be slow. It may be several months before new leaves will appear.

This is not an easy task but highly doable.

Transplanting

The biggest and most traumatic event in the life of a sago will be in moving and transplanting it to a different location. The most important factor is to do this activity when the plant is not actively growing - winter or early spring.

A few considerations and you will be successful. Because some of the roots may be damaged when digging it is suggested you remove some of the lower leaves.

Sago Palm LeafIf you own a small sago measuring six inches or less this is can easily be accomplished, with minimal root damage. First, trim some of the leaves from the bottom. Take as much of the root ball as possible. Be sure you dig about six inches away from the trunk. Working early in the day is helpful to the plant. Replant in a hole the same level it was growing.

You can add a mixture of 1/2 garden soil from the original hole and 1/2 peat moss but good drainage is essential.

A larger sago that measure 8 - 10 inches or more in diameter - and taller than 12 inches will require more effort. The tree trunk is heavy in itself, and you may need support help to make the move. Prepare your new location hole in the same way as for a smaller sago.

Water when the soil becomes dry. New leaves will emerge by the summer. Sometimes replanting or transplanting makes the cycad out of sync but in time, everything will be back to normal in a years time.

It is well worth trying to save larger cycads in the landscape. This plant material can be pricey to replace.

Remember, longevity is key with this plant. At the Huntington Gardens in San Marino, California, a cycad was planted over 80 years ago. There is also a 220 year old specimen of Encephalarto, a relative of the cycad, at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. It is living happily ever after, after being transplanted during their palm house restoration.


Sago Projects

Emily: My sago plants are dying!

Photo by Bill Fine of CaliforniaQ: I am wondering if you are able to take a look at a few photos of 3 sago palms that I think are dying. They are located in the San Diego (Carlsbad) area about 3 miles east of the ocean. (Mild climate). The soil is terrible, sandy, clay, grayish stuff. The plants were planted about 20 months ago and are starting to turn yellow and brown. I cut a few of the really bad ones off today. Can you determine if these plants are salvageable? Can I do anything to help them? They have never been fertilized. We had a very wet winter and perhaps they got too much water. Normally, they just get some residual watering from a sprinkler system in the vicinity.

Photo by Bill Fine of CaliforniaA: A condition called frizzle top is probably the most common problem. This is a manganese deficiency causing the new leaves or upper leaves to turn yellow. This will start as spots and eventually the entire leaf is covered. There is a way to correct this. Spray the leaves with manganese sulfate.

Once a month for three months mix one teaspoon of manganese sulfate per gallon of water. You can also apply one to five pounds (gauging with the size of the plant) of manganese to the soil in the springtime to correct or prevent the problem.

Very common for this plant. In soils that are high pH soils and very acid sandy soils will have this deficiency. (those are juniper type shrubs around the sago in the photo - they love acidic soil.) I would have your soil checked at the local extension service. They should be able to tell you what the possibilities are.

Photo by Bill Fine of CaliforniaOther than that you can get a palm fertilizer and fertilize the sago four times a year during the growing season.

Old leaves may turn yellow from over watering or too much fertilizer.

New leaves may turn yellow from excessive fertilizer and in general poor soil conditions.

The yellowing and browning leaves can be removed from the plant with no harm to the mother plant

According to "Southern Living Garden Problem Solver": A potassium deficiency initially affects oldest fronds, then progresses to new fronds. Yellow or orange spots appear on the fronds with dead tissue along the leaf margins.

Eventually the entire fronds appear frizzled. New fronds are small, yellow and frizzled. Palm fertilizer should correct potassium deficiency.


Emily: Sago seeds are poisonous!

Q: We are mourning the loss of one of our Jack Russell Terriers to eating a Sago Palm seed. Our house is very quiet and our other two Jack Russells miss their young friend. We had NO idea how poisonous Sago seeds are. We have approximately nine large Sagos in our backyard. It appears that three of them are female seed producers. Is there any way to remove the seed area before it produces seeds? Can one cut out that fuzzy center area? If yes, what time of year? We live in Jacksonville Florida. We are also willing to move any or all of the Sagos. We have a 4 year old child and two dogs and do not want to go through anything like this EVER again. Thank you for your thoughts.

A: I am sorry to hear about your Jack Russell Terrier. Yes, I am afraid sago seeds are dangerous.

Sago plants flower and produce cones in late May or there about, when it is time to pollinate. Seeds develop through the summer. I would watch for that development and then start pinching off......and not letting them get to maturity......mature seeds are then harvested in January and February.....perhaps sooner....in your location of JAX. Seeds of course are bright red and easily noticed.

Sagos develop well and grow in partial shade and full sun. Now is a good time of the year to relocate if you are thinking of doing such. Before the hot temperatures happen.

Tip: In the southeast, Palm fronds make excellent tomato stakes.