How to Care for a Sago Palm (and Why They Are So Difficult)
Sago Palm: One Landscape Plant You May Want to Avoid
There is nothing wispy or soft about a sago palm (Cycas revoluta). This plant 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 babies are no better. Those little pups that sprout at the base of its trunk are a huge chore to dislodge.
This lush, long-living plant isn't actually a palm at all, though their foliage looks like palm fronds. Sagos are in the cycad family and are native to southern Japan. Cycads go back to the Jurassic Age, and with all of their armor, it's easy to see why they have survived so long. There are several types of cycads on the market, but the sago palm is one is the hardiest and the only one I have seen in a tree-like form.
Having said all that, I have three in my yard and years of experience caring for them. I'll share:
- How I care for mine, including a step-by-step tutorial on trimming.
- My experience with having dogs and sago palms in the same yard.
- Some tips on how to acquire a pup plant for free
- A few reasons to think twice about planting a sago palm.
- Some great advice readers have shared about caring for this plant.
Sago Palm Quick Facts
- They are slow-growing, taking as long as 50 years to reach their full height.
- Females (queens) grow to be 15 feet tall and 8 feet wide.
- Males (kings) reach a height and width of 8 feet.
- Sagos don't flower but do produce large, cone-like structures after about 15 years of growth.
- Both males and females produce "pups", or sucker plants, around the base of the trunk. These small plants can be removed and planted elsewhere.
- Sagos make great potted plants.
- The starch of the trunk is a staple food for many Pacific Islanders, but the pulp is carefully processed to remove toxins.
- All parts of the sago palm are poisonous to humans, dogs, and cats, but the seeds are the most toxic.
Sagos Are Poisonous!
All parts of the sago palm are extremely poisonous. Most breeds of dogs stay away from these plants. Our cocker spaniels, beagle, and two Jack Russels lived their whole lives with the sagos in the backyard. But when in doubt, rip it out. Also, always wear gloves when working closely with these plants and wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
How to Take Care of a Sago Palm
This information will be especially helpful for anyone who has neglected or does not have a clue about sago palm care and maintenance.
Any climate that gets at least 9 inches of rain a year will sustain a sago. In dry climates, however, sagos need moderate watering. During very warm, dry weather, keep your sago happy by deep-watering it every two weeks or so. Leave the hose on a very low drip and place it at the base of the tree. Leave it there for an hour or so to let the water penetrate down to the roots. Once the plant is well established, deep watering is not needed. I have never had to deep-water mine and rely only on our natural rain cycle for water, but then my sago is growing right next to our lawn.
Sago palms do best in well-drained soil. If your soil is full of clay or is very sandy, add good quality compost.
Trimming and Pruning
This is hard work, but I hope my experience may be helpful. For about 10 years, our sago remained an overgrown mess and I could not find any trimming advice on the Internet. The tree was neglected 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'm going to 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
How Often Do Sago Palms Need to Be Trimmed?
The practice of trimming the sago is controversial in plant circles. My plant has spent many years between trimmings. It is only in the last few years that I have had time to maintain and trim the plant to my liking. New flushes of leaves sprout every year and I trim the plant every year. I enjoy my sago trimmed and kept slim.
I don't fertilize my plant and since it grows near my lawn, it gets enough water even for southern California's dry climate.
The Differences Between Male and Female Sago Palms
The biggest differences between the male and female are the growing habits and size. Both males and females produce pups.
The male or king sago
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. King sago palms are smaller than queens, reaching full size at 8 feet in height and width.
The female or queen sago
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. Queen sagos are bigger and more tree-like than kings, reaching 15 feet in height and 12 feet in width.
When seeds emerge on your queen sago, 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. The inside layer of the seed is toxic.
How to Get a Sago Palm Plant
The best way to get a sago palm, either to plant in the ground or to grow in a pot, is to find someone who has a mature tree and ask them for a pup. The tree owner will probably be happy to part with the sucker for free, especially if you offer to help separate the pup from the mature tree!
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.
Here's how to plant a sago pup:
- The moist ends need to be dried first.
- Bury your new hopefuls only two inches into the soil. Leave the prickly spines exposed.
- Water them often until they take root.
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 because new growth can be over whelming.
- Every year, you must chop off the pups to avoid a tangled mess at the base of your plant. It is best to do this task when the pups first sprout at the base or along the trunk.
- Once a year the plant piles on a new row of leafy spines. (Sometimes this growth is called a "flush.") Old spears should 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 detox process is very lengthy and the plant is very toxic without it. Dogs and other pets will get sick if they chew on seeds, bark or other parts of the plant.
More About Sago Palms
- Despite its difficult care, it is the most popular cycad of botanical gardens and of nursery stock being sold.
- These plants do best in climes with no prolonged freezes.
- 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.
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.
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
Questions & Answers
I have a sago palm that has been trimmed but has divided into two plants at the top. If I were to cut it off below the "y," would it take off with one branch or would it die?
With the branching you describe here, it is likely you have a male sago palm. The branching effect can be very attractive in a landscape situation. If your cut is below the "y," you will probably get a ton of pups around the trunk. It will not die. If you do not want the sago palm any longer, you need to sever and then dig out the roots under and below the ground.Helpful 2
I have a female sago and now has the bed of seeds with pollen and all. I really want to chop it all off because I have a son who has asthma and allergies. In addition, I have two German Shepherds pups that I'm trying to train not to get into everything. Will I be harming the plant if I remove the whole top portion?
You can remove it while it is still green. It is a very hard job because the area is still fresh and everything will have to be cut at the base. Be sure to wear heavy gloves.Helpful 12
We bought this house. A sago was planted right next to the foundation of the house. It is very large. Is this going to harm the foundation?
I have never moved or dug up a sago palm, and the root system is not something I am familiar with. None-the-less, I would advise moving it away from a house fountain and right now because it is only going to get bigger. If you are going to tackle the job let us know what the root system is like, how tall your sago is, and if you can lift it out.Helpful 11
After a very cold winter, our two sago palms have been very slow to show new growth. One of the heads on the male plant and the only head on the female appear dead with rotten tops with holes. There are pups halfway up the 4’ trunks though. Do you think the female could survive if we cut off the dead head and let the pups go?
Clear all dead material from the tops of heads you mention. To encourage new growth next spring protect the damaged heads with a duck cloth loosely draped over the top at night when freeze returns. Remove each day. Remove the pups to allow growth energy to reach the top. Using that care for the winter coming up, all you can do is see what happens in the spring.Helpful 6
Our sago palm is at least 25 years old, and about eight feet tall. I dug a flower garden at its base and removed 95% of the pups to a depth of about six inches. I then covered it with a black plastic cloth to prevent weeds and put down topsoil and bark chips. I am now getting overrun with new pups that have broken through to the top. How do I get rid of these things?
They will just keep coming; they will grow all over the trunk and around the base. The easiest way to control pups is to check your sago palm every month and break the pups off with the tip of a trenching shovel or a hori-hori knife.Helpful 4
© 2012 Sherry Venegas