Sago palm at Rhapis Gardens
Cycas revoluta - "KING SAGO PALM TREE"
Care & Culture
Growing from Seed, and Growing from Pups
by Lynn McKamey
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. 
Sago at Smithsonian
Cycas revoluta displayed at the Smithsonian 
in Washington D.C. near the dinosaur exhibit.
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". 
Ancient Cycad
Encephalartos altensteinii, possibly the "oldest pot plant" in the world was collected in South Africa in the early 1770s, and brought to England in 1775. It is 16' (4 m) from the base of the stem to the growing point. 
Care and Culture of Cycas revoluta:   

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.  

Male Cone
Female Flower
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.  
Seed developing in a female Cycas revoluta
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. 
For more information about growing Sagos from pups, For more information, take this link. 
New leavesNEW LEAVES emerge all at once in a circular pattern, and are very tender until they begin to harden several weeks later. Do not disturb or repot the plant during this process and allow the plant to receive good overhead light; low light will produce long leaves, while bright light will produce shorter leaves. If light is coming from a window, give the plant a 1/4 turn each day until the new leaves harden, otherwise they may lean toward the light source. Do not allow the plant to become excessively dry when new leaves are developing, otherwise new foliage may wither and die or become yellow and stunted.  If you do not place an indoor sago in enough light when it gets new leaves, they will stretch toward what little light there is and may look like this: 

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). 

Cycas revoluta at Huntingon Gardens California
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. 

Ornamental cycads (Cycadaceae) in South Florida are highly infested with an introduced armored scale insect from Southeast Asia. 

Horticulturists and pest control personnel in the area report that common methods of scale insect control with systemic insecticides, contact insecticides against crawlers, and oils have not been effective in reducing these infestations. 

Affected cycads are almost completely coated with a white crust that gives the appearance of a layer of fine snow.  The scales suck all the juices out of the leaves, and the cycad dies within a few weeks.  At this time, this type of scale does not attack other kinds of plants, only Cycads. 

To read more about this new scale and the devastating effects it has on Cycads, take this LINK.  An update on the scale can be found at this additional LINK.  Several more articles can be found HERE

If you have purchased Cycads from Florida nurseries (which ship all over the U.S. so they might have shown up in your favorite garden center too), please watch for this scale.  It multiplies at a fast rate and can spread to other Cycads in your collection.  The only remedy at this point is to destroy the affected plant immediately. 

Rest assured that none of our Sago palms at Rhapis Gardens has this lethal scale.  I never buy any stock from other nurseries (that includes all the plant species we grow) since it often introduces insects and disease to our 99% problem free, squeaky clean greenhouses. 

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. 
Cycas revoluta at Rhapis Gardens
Cycas revoluta in 17" and 12" (44 and 30 cm)
pots grown at Rhapis Gardens in South Texas.

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 sagus
I am allergic to Christmas tree needles and also Sago palms (don't forget that they are related!).  The needles of both leave red prickles on my arms and legs for a day or so, but it is more annoying than a threat to my health. 
TRANSPLANTING or MOVING Cycads can be successful if a few guidelines are followed.  Move sagos during winter or early spring when they are not actively growing.  

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. 
DURABILITY AND INDESTRUCTIBILITY of Cycas revoluta is legendary. They not only outlived the dinosaurs, but can often survive adverse forces of nature and oversights of mankind!  

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
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: 
closeup of variegated leaves
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. 
A variegated cycad
Dear Reader, 

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, 
    author and owner of Rhapis Gardens 
P.S. If you purchased a Sago Palm from Home Depot and the tag directed you to this website, be aware that Rhapis Gardens and I do not sell to Home Depot.  We are a small specialized grower, not a mass producer who usually grows sagos in full sun for use in southern landscapes.  The only way to have a sago palm, especially grown as a houseplant for interiors, is to purchase one by mail order from Rhapis Gardens.

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.

Growing Sagos from Seed.
Growing Sagos from Pups (offsets).
Go to Rhapis Gardens Sago Palm Catalog Page.
 Seeds, Seedlings, Pups (in spring), and full grown ones too!
Link to exotic plant articles and Rhapis Gardens catalog
Link to Rhapis Gardens catalog.
Click the Logo above to find links to articles about other exotic
plants,  or go directly to Rhapis Garden's Mail Order Catalog.

entire contents is copyright 1998-2007 Lynn McKamey
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