by Matt Gibson
Looking to add a sago palm plant to your garden? Like some ferns, the sago palm plant has been around since the prehistoric era, and the sago palm is one of the oldest groups of plants in the known world. How cool is that? Despite its namesake, the sago palm is not a palm tree, but instead is a member of the plant family called Cycad, of the genus Cycas.
The sago palm may not be a palm tree by name, but it does look like one, which is how the sago palm came to gain its somewhat misleading name. This slow-growing houseplant produces just one new set of leaves for every year of care from the gardener. The most recent year’s fresh crop of leaves are soft to the touch as they emerge, but as the foliage starts to grow and mature, the leaves each morph into a hard, pointed spear.
Varieties of Sago Palm
There are around 40 known species of sago palm in the Cycas genus, but only one type is commonly grown in the United States. Unsurprisingly, that type is known as the common sago palm, also called Cycas revoluta. The common sago palm is grown in two different forms: one male and one female version of the plant.
While the male plant, referred to as king sago, grows large enough, new crowns begin to appear as the plant starts to branch out. Once king sago plants become established in the garden, the space-claiming effect becomes noticeable as new branches begin to emerge from the tree’s two- to three-foot trunk.
The king sago plant is much smaller than its female counterpart, reaching maturity at around eight feet in height and width. King sago is commonly grown as a houseplant, while its queen requires an outdoor environment, as it is too large to grow indoors.
The female, or queen sago—counterpart to the king sago palm, is a mammoth from the age of the dinosaurs. Queen sago is really more of a tree than a shrub, growing as large as 15 feet in height and 12 feet in width once maturity is reached.
Growing Conditions for Sago Palm
Sago palm trees prefer bright but indirect light, so take care to choose a place to plant your sago palms (and select a spot to store them) in a location that does not receive direct sunlight. Keep the soil moist throughout the spring and summer months, then reduce your level of watering during the winter. Sago palms thrive in warm, humid climates and cannot perform well in zones with climates where they’ll experience freezing temperatures and extreme winds.
If you’re growing your sago palm plant in a container, make sure that you use a well-draining potting mix with lots of organic matter and a neutral pH. You’ll also want to make sure to fertilize your plant both at the beginning of the spring and throughout the growing season. Let the soil dry out completely between waterings.
How to Plant Sago Palm
The best way to get a sago palm plant of your very own is to ask a gardening friend who owns a mature plant if you can have one of its pups. Though sago palm plants are most commonly propagated by seed, the sago palm is rarely grown from seed at home by hobbyist gardeners. This phenomenon is because the sago palm is a bit reproductively finicky in that it requires both a male and a female plant to be present in order to produce viable seeds.
Once you get your hands on your own sago palm specimen, begin by drying out the moist ends of the pup. Then plant your sago palm two inches below the soil, making sure to leave its prickly spines exposed to the open air. Water your sago palm often after planting until the new tree begins to take root.
Care of Sago Palm
Regular watering is required during the growing season, but hydration should be lessened during the winter. Water deeply, and allow the soil to dry completely between waterings.
Fertilize sago palm trees in the spring as well as throughout the growing season. Amend clay-heavy or sandy soils with lots of compost to ensure proper drainage.
Trim the leaves of your sago palm once per year, in the fall. Cut the leaves back as close to the trunk of the tree as possible using a long-handled branch trimmer. Start at the bottom, and cut the spears off from underneath. Work around and toward the center of the plant, leaving one row of spears at the crown.
Because sago palm trees grow so slowly, you will only need to repot your plants once every three or four years. However, every spring, give the plant some upkeep by removing it from its pot or garden bed then amending the soil with lots of compost or organic material to ensure continued healthy growth.
Reproduction of Sago Palm
Though propagation of sago palm plants is typically done via seed, it is virtually impossible to grow sago palms from seed successfully in a home garden. Therefore, as we’ve mentioned, the best way to get more sago palms is to harvest the pups from a mature sago palm plant. Both a male and a female sago must be present for the creation of new pups. Patience is the key ingredient to propagating sago palms, as it may take a period of more than of 15 years for mature plants to reproduce.
To propagate sago pups, use a shovel and lodge it into the base of the pup. Leverage the pup outward with the handle of your shovel until the new sago plant pops off. If the pup does not separate from the parent plant easily, it is not ready to remove yet.
Tips for Sago Palm Success
Sago plants are often grown indoors because it is easier to replicate a tropical environment inside for those not lucky enough to live in a tropical climate. Try to create a warm, humid environment indoors for your sago palms by providing plenty of warmth and misting the plants frequently. Consider moving sago palms outdoors during the summer so that your plants can enjoy the natural heat the warm season provides.
The easiest way to kill your sago palms is to overwater them. Though these plants don’t like being overly moist, they do appreciate moisture in the air, so try to provide a humid environment for them. If sago palms are allowed to dry out for long periods between waterings, the tips of the foliage will start to brown or experience moderate dieback.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Sago Palm
Scale bugs are a common problem with sago palms, especially in certain climate areas. Scale bugs can be the culprit if you notice the leaves or spears of your sago palm plant begin to yellow.
Yellowing foliage can also be due to insufficient drainage or overwatering, but the yellowing effect is usually caused by scale bugs. Treat the infestation aggressively with a systemic insecticide when you see yellowing crop up in new growth.
The leaves of the sago palm are also susceptible to fungal rot, which is easy to detect, as brown spots will begin to appear on the leaves of affected plants. Though fungal rot will not kill your sago palms, it can make them look sickly and unhealthy. Remove affected foliage entirely to eliminate the fungus.
Toxicity Warning for Sago Palm
All parts of the sago palm plant are toxic to pets and humans, especially the plant’s seeds. If you have dogs, cats, or small children, it is best to play it safe and keep your sago palm plants far out of their reach. If any part of the plant is ingested by children or pets, immediate medical attention should be sought, as toxicity levels of the plant are considered severe.
Want to Learn More About Sago Palm?
This short, informative introduction teaches you the basics of sago palm care and maintenance:
Interested in propagating your sago palms? This tutorial film shows you the proper way to harvest sago palm pups for propagation:
Trimming your sago palm is an important part of its care, and this instructional film shows you just how to do it correctly:
Love your sago palm, but hate where it’s located? This short how-to will teach you to relocate your sago palm without damaging its root system: