10 Reasons Not to Plant the Sago Palm
Sago Palm: Landscape Plant You May Want to Avoid
Although I'm writing to tell you how problematic the sago plant (Cycas revoluta) is, I also include instructions on how to trim and do yearly maintenance if you already have one.
There is not anything wispy or soft about this plant. It has a thick skin of armor. Massive crowns of stiff needle-clad spears grow out from the center of a trunk that sports more needles and tough debris. The other bane of this almost ironclad plant is those little pups sprouting at the base of its trunk—if ignored, dislodging them becomes a huge chore.
The sago palm is a cycad from southern Japan that tolerates climes with no prolonged freezes. Cycads are a species of plant that go back to the Jurassic Age. I can see why cycads have survived. There are several types on the market, but the sago palm is one is the most hardy and the only one I have seen in tree-like form.
Should I Plant a Sago Palm?
I think you'll regret it. We have three in our yard, so I have firsthand experience.
It takes about 8 years to mature to its full size. That gives you some time to get rid of it if you decide it's too much for you. If you wait and then want to remove a mature plant, you may need a crane.
Note: If you decide to plant one anyway, I suggest you don't buy one if you can get pups from a friend or neighbor. It is one of those friendship plants, it can be shared easily.
10 Reasons Not to Plant a Sago Palm
- If you tend to let gardening slide, don't plant this one, or you'll be sorry.
- Every 1 to 2 years, you must chop off the pups to avoid a tangled mess.
- Every year the plant piles on a new row of spines. (Sometimes this growth is called a "flush.") Old spears must be cut off every year.
- Think of it as a tree, not a flower bed plant. It will get bigger and bigger.
- Everything on this plant is needle sharp and dangerous.
- Its debris is too tough for the recycle bin. Our city will not take it for recycling.
- You must wear safety glasses and protective clothing for big trimming jobs.
- The female plant blooms over the entire crown and produces red seeds the size of hominy, all set in a bed of thorns.
- If the plant is no longer good for your landscape design there will be a problem getting rid of it. Generally, landscapers no longer desire mature specimens as stock.
- Sago palms are a favorite food of indigenous islanders in Indonesia, but the sharp and hard outer shell is dangerous for all animals. It is in the same category as chicken bones, and may cause trips to the veterinarian.
How to Take Care of a Sago Palm That Hasn't Been Maintained?
This page is for everyone that has neglected or does not have a clue about sago palm care and maintenance.
About 10 years ago I had an overgrown mess and I could not find any trimming advice on the Internet. Our tree was little observed for a number of years and now it has trunks or three crowns on the top and numerous sprouts at the bottom.
The Internet does inform me that some plants will grow multi crowns. Usually, it is a male that will branch off. But the internet does not say specifically what to do when growth is out of hand. So I'm going to start cutting. I begin by cutting the leaves as close to the truck as possible. See photos below.
Step-by-Step Sago Palm Trimming TutorialClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Difference Between Male and Female Sago
The biggest difference between the male and female is the growing habits.
The male: When it is big enough, the male will start to branch out or grow new crowns. It took a good fifteen years for me to see that fact. In fact, I was clueless about the difference for decades. Once your male plant is established and has a thick two to three foot trunk, you will see the branching effect.
The female: This plant will continue to grow and flush at the center, getting taller each year. If you are considering a queen sago for the yard, remember to think of it as a tree. Sagos are not little ornamental flower bed candidates.
Both males and females produce the pups.
Female Sago Palm
Let the next year's crop of leaves push the seeds under. No need to clean them out like I did the first year this happened.
My mother has watched birds eat and break open the seeds on this plant near her front window, but I would advise keeping animals and children away.
More About Sago Palms
- Despite its difficult care, it is the most popular cycad of botanical gardens and of nursery stock being sold.
- The plants grow slowly and that is probably why a 5 gallon specimen may seem a bit expensive at the nursery. The price is not because it is hard to grow, but because the nurserymen had to water it for more than 3 or 4 years.
- In the 1980s, this plant started highlighting landscapes all over Southern California. From the street, they give a yard lots of visual impact and go well with other palms and tropical plants.
- We decided to get one to block the line of view of the neighborhood mail box and our front window. Ours was planted in 1984. It was only two feet tall, with one row of spears. Our neighbor planted a bigger one in their front yard. The next year, their plant disappeared. People steal them in the middle of the night because they're so popular and expensive.
Trimming Pups from Sago PalmClick thumbnail to view full-size
How to Plant Sago Pups
Rooted pups are very popular at yard and garage sales, but it is impossible to tell which is female or male. It takes 5-7 years for pups to mature and reveal their sex.
After I removed all the pups, I put them in the bin, but the next day someone had moved them all Why? Of course, I know why. My husband stuck them into the ground hoping to get new plants started, but he was doing it all wrong. Here's how you do it:
- The moist ends need to be dried first.
- Bury your new hopefuls only two inches. Leave the prickly spines exposed.
- Water them often until they take root.
Do You Have Sago Palms
Do You Like Your Sago Palm?
Other Good Information about Cycads
- Killing Cycad Scale with Coffee Grounds
Learn the methods used to control the cycad scale using coffee grounds as an "insecticide."
- The Sago Palm, Cycas Revoluta, by Phil Bergman
I cannot say enough about this website. Every question one can think of is answered here. Maybe I like my plants, after all.
- Dave's Garden
Another website that covers everything about sago palms. Want to grow from seed? Here is the place to find out how.
I Trim Every Year
I know the practice of trimming the sago is controversial in plant circles. I have seen commercially trimmed sago of multi-trunks not fare well. One or two trunks may not do so well, and may not sprout a new set of leaves, turning brown and lifeless in a few months.
As I indicated, my plant has spent years between trimmings. It is only in the last few years that I have had the time to trim to my liking. I have been getting new flushes of leaves every year and I believe I will be able to enjoy my sago trimmed and kept slim.
I do not give it any fertilizer or extra watering. It is near a lawn and that is enough water for this plant. I live in SoCal with a dry climate. I give this plant a drastic cut every year and it grows back with no care at all. What do you think? My husband says I ruined it. It may look like a bad haircut, but it will grow out.
Readers' Comments (and Author's Answers)
"I am a gardener in the tropics and love the challenges from all plants, bring it on!" —Art
"We have three established sagos. I spent about an hour on a female which is easier of control. It is looking very stately. The male plant is overgrown again." —Sherry Venegas (author)
"I love sago palms! They are beautiful and stately to look at. Yes, they do have sharp spines all over their trunks, but these are very easy to avoid. Yes, they are poisonous, but the thought of a dog trying to eat a spiny Sago trunk just doesn't seem very plausible. By the way, sagos are actually edible and are the main staple in the diet of many pacific islanders. The pulp of the tree must be processed in such a way as to remove the toxins. Oh, and as to the prolific pups, that is my favorite part about sagos. The pups are so easy to harvest and cultivate. I have about a hundred or so I'm taking care of and it's so exciting to watch them sprout. It's like Christmas or something. I'm taking care of the pups until they get bigger, but I'm not sure what to do with them once they grow up. I might send them off to college." —Joseph Boggs
"Give your sago spouts as gifts!" —Sherry Venegas (author)
"Our local TV station reported that this entire plant is poisonous; nurseries do not warn potential buyers of this information..." —Joyce Spanos
"I know sagos are poisonous, but most breeds of dogs stay away. Our cocker spaniels , a beagle, and two Jack Russels lived their whole lives with the sagos in the backyard. But when in doubt, rip it out, is the best policy." —Sherry Venegas (author)
"We live in southern Texas and love our Sago plant! Actually hoping to plant a few more around our yard! :))" —Paula
"We just removed 5 sago palms from our backyard after I saw on local tv that they are deadly poison to animals. I love my dogs! Those palms had to go." —Brenda Vickery
"Your article is dead on. Palms should be grown on tropical islands. Excellent!" —Judy Specht from California
"I have never grown them. I don't even know if they grow where I live. But from the sounds of things, they are not a "people-friendly" plant and it would not work for me. They are beautiful plants, though." —June Campbell from North Vancouver, BC, Canada
"Great read, Sherry. My house was built in the 50s and when I bought it 3 years ago, there was a big sago palm just like yours in the front yard. Beautiful plant. It wasn't maintained since I bought it so it's getting out of control. It has multiple heads like the one in your photos and also 2-3 flowers with a crown (is that normal?). I managed to trim the outside part, but the interiors are a bit trickier to get to. When would you recommend doing the trimming? I live in the Central Valley (CA) it does frost for a good amount of the winter." —Randy the Noob
"Randy, by interior I thinking that you have leaves criss-crossing each other in the areas of the branching trucks. I would get in there with the long handled clippers and snip off all but the top newest row. Or if you want clip it clean, except for your high branch. One if the pictures I show how I did that one year. We do not get frost that often, so I would take precautions and wait till frost is past for the winter. The frost could burn and dry up the sago palm at the tip of the branches if it does not have these tall hard leaves protecting it. The male does get a cone shaped crown once a year that elongates as it matures over a few months." —Sherry Venegas (author)
"I had my landscaper move 4 of these from my backyard to the front yard. Considering Southern CA has had 1 of the worst droughts ever over the past 7 years (& I stopped watering long ago), these trees have surprisingly survived when other palm species have died off & I needed to have others removed altogether. I have 1 male that I'm aware of & I cut off the crown. I thought it was going to die after that, but it survived. I personally think they look great in my front yard. Yes, they're prickly and I've gotten stung by them on a few occasions, but I'm going all succulent combined with existing palms in the front yard since all the other vegetation died off. I just put them on a drip irrigation system - hopefully they don't grow too large." —Ben
"In the long haul if you are using less water the better for your pocket. If you have a natural sink in your yard a tree for shade, could be considered in the future, because this drought cycle will end sometime. We did water our sorry looking lawn a little and the birch in our sink faired okay. The already established birch is in front of a bay window and it is nice in the summer to have the filtered sun playing in the living room." —Sherry Venegas (author)
"One of the main reasons that you might not want this plant is that it can be very toxic (for anyone who decided to eat it: dogs, kids etc). It can kill if digested." —Gulia
"They take several years to grow large and flower. It is an easy investment as the plant is very low maintenance. Trimming is a pain and I get an alergic reaction from it. It is a neat plant and when grown very large you will be the envy of your block! As stated above, do not plant if it will be near pets or children. Other than that, it's fine." —Roldan
"Sagos require a Love/Hate relationship! They are incredibly beautiful and reign supreme in Houston, but can be vicious if you are not fully armored to deal with them. Here, they are low maintenance as compared to annuals and pups are plentiful, so share them :)"—BetsyofTexas
"I cut all the branches off of my male sage palm, probably a mistake. what I thought was a new thrush of branches. Is actually 4 cones growing. How quickly will the new branches grow back after the cones die off? I'm also in so cal." —Nate
"Nate, You should be seeing new trushes in six months, maybe sooner. Leave the cones on till they are dried, then break them off. You should be enjoying a clean plant till the beginning of next year. Watch the pups, though." —Sherry Venegas (author)
"We do not have them in our yard but many of our neighbors do. After reading this, I am not tempted to grow it. Will just continue to admire our neighbor's sago palms."—Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas
"Should you remove the gold crown from the top of the male. It seems like it has stopped the growth!" —Art
"Art, I would leave it for awhile. It should not interfere with the growth. Be sure to read the other Q&As in this column for more info." —Sherry Venegas (author)
"I just discovered I have a male plant. The cone shape in the center is pretty tall. When do I cut this or do I cut this off. And if it's OK to remove will it have seeds too?" —anonymous
"You can leave it as long as you want. It is an ornament, so to speak. Let it dry up on the plant. No seeds in it. Since you have a male you will see branching after the trunk gets 3 or 4 feet high. Have fun with your sago palm."—Sherry Venegas (author)
"If they would just top out at about 2 feet tall, they would be awesome!!!! They do need a lot of TLC but if you love gardening, the pruning isn't as bad as portrayed. With the right placement, they do give a great tropical appeal to any landscape." —anonymous
© 2012 Sherry Venegas