Sago palms (Cycas revoluta) are not palms at all, according to the University of Illinois, although they have palm-like fronds. Rather, they are ancient plants called cycads, which have been around since before the time of the dinosaurs. Also called "king sago" or "palm cycad," sago palms are the most commercially produced of all the cycads, and are popularly grown in containers, where their growth can be limited.
Origin and History
Sago palms are native to the southernmost islands of Japan. The thick, leathery fronds were traditionally used in funerals by the Japanese. Today, they are often used in floral arrangements. The Japanese also cultivated sago palms as bonsai plants, a tradition that continues today in Japan and other parts of the world as well. Cycads, including sagos, have also been used by many people groups as a source of food or medicine. All parts of the plant are poisonous, however, and must be properly prepared before consumption, making this practice dangerous or even deadly.
Sago palms are evergreen. They have long, slender fronds that arch from the center of the plant in a shape imitative of a fountain. The trunk (as well as the rest of the plant) is very slow-growing, which makes the sago look much more like a shrub than a tree. While sago palms can reach a maximum height of 10 feet, according to Clemson University, they usually average around 4 feet tall and wide. Male plants have a slender, cone-shaped flower, while female plants have a cabbage-like flower.
Sago palms prefer humid, hot temperatures. For that reason, and because they are slow-growing, sago palms are often cultivated as indoor plants. Outdoors, they are only hardy year-round in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) growing zones 8 through 10.
Sago palms grow well in full sun or partial shade. If there is too much shade, the plant may not grow any new leaves in the spring, according to the University of Illinois. They thrive in dry soil and will not tolerate overly wet conditions. Potting mixtures made for cacti and succulents work well for these plants if grown in a container. Sago palms do not need heavy fertilizing, but can benefit with a light application of a slow-release fertilizer made for tropical foliage plants in the spring.
Overly soggy soil is the most common problem with sago palms, according to the University of California. Poorly draining soil and over-watering will quickly lead to root rot. In some cases, plants that are exposed to full, hot sun in drought conditions may experience yellowing of the leaves. In very hot climates, it is best to plant these bushes in partial shade. Spider mites and other common houseplant insect pests can plague indoor sago palms. These can be rinsed off with a strong stream of water.