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Sago Palm, Cycas revoluta
By Deb Pavlosky
Sago palms — people either love them or hate them and there is very little in between. But, as with all polarizing things, there are very good schools of thought on both sides of the fence. If you are sitting with the squirrels, maybe this article will help you decide which yard to jump in.
First of all, YES! All parts of sago palms are poisonous. If you have small children or pets, I would definitely think twice before planting a sago palm in my yard (especially in a backyard where little ones or pets might be playing without careful supervision). Generally, kids and pets are not going to want to chew on the fronds of sago palms – they are just too rough and pointy. However, dogs and kids have been known to pick up the bright red seeds from female sago palm cones or the spent yellow cones of male sago palms and chew on them. This can prove deadly. I believe the mortality rate for dogs having ingested any part of a sago palm is greater than 50%. I haven’t really found too much information on cats and sago palms, so I am thinking that maybe they aren’t as attracted to chewing on these plants as dogs (or as my cat owner friends would say, they are just too smart to do that). Regardless, if you have heard enough to make you jump the fence and enter the “sago palms are evil yard”, you can stop reading here.
If you are not the owner of small pets and don’t have small children or maybe you have a spot that isn’t easily accessible to them, then you might actually want to consider having one of these plants in your home landscape. Sago palms have an amazing, tropical/nearly prehistoric look to
them, so they definitely can add interest to your yard. And bonus, sago palms don’t have a lot of requirements for care – they can tolerate full sun to part shade and can even be potted and grown as a houseplant indoors (in bright light). These plants love our humidity, well draining soil (so plant high and amend the soil with a little expanded shale), and apply fertilizer regularly. Sago palms are also pretty hardy. They can take temperatures as low as 15 degrees (though there might be some damage to fronds) to as high as 110 degrees. Sago palms come from the subtropics of southern Japan, so our climate is just about perfect for them. All of these characteristics make sago palms great for use in our landscapes. Having said that, often when sago palms are planted in home landscapes, they are planted improperly.
So, I am going to apologize now if you live in the Seabrook area and have sago palms in your landscaping that are placed near any walk or drive way. I may have driven by your home and taken a few pictures. Gosh, poor sago palm placement really is a common problem! When sago palms are young, they are quite small and many people (and homebuilders) often place them at the entryway of homes or near walkways and driveways. Sago palms are attractive and interesting and really can add some wow to a landscape. However, while they are slow growing, it won’t be forever before they get large enough to become a problem. Sago palms can grow to be over 20’ tall (eventually) and their trunks can be anywhere from 1’to 2’ in diameter with fronds ranging in length from 18” to more than 5’. They can put on as many as 3 new sets of fronds each year (with perfect growing conditions) or as few as one. They will grow taller faster with more sun, but leaf fronds will be shorter. In the shade, these plants will grow more slowly, but the fronds will grow long to reach for the sun. Seriously, this is not a plant you want to be moving after a few years. Trimming fronds to allow for safe passage often makes these poor plants look lopsided and weird. I am guessing that’s not the look most people are going for in their landscape – lopsided and weird. Sago palms are extremely prickly fellows. OK, prickly might not be quite descriptive enough – their fronds are very similar to razorwire. So, placement is key from day one. Give them plenty of space to grow and spread and be sure to keep them well away from any walkways, driveways or around any areas you plan to walk in the future. Think about the service people who might be coming to your home to paint or fix an air conditioner or repair utilities. I am sure they would rather not be poked with sharp spines while they work. On the plus side, if you have a teenager that you want to keep safe and secure inside your home, sago palms are ideal for planting outside a bedroom window. But really, take a look at the picture included here of the sago palms on either side of a front door – do these people even want company? Ahhhhh. Now I get it.
To keep your sago palms looking great in your landscape, you do need to fertilize and watch for insects. Remove any pups that grow around the bottom to keep your sago palm looking like a single plant instead of like a mass of sago palm. If old leaves turn yellow, it could be from over watering, poor drainage or too much fertilizer. If new leaves turn yellow, then it could be from lack of manganese (apply manganese sulfate to remedy). Also, plants that are sick with scale may turn yellow as well. Scale are tiny insects that in large numbers will make a sago palm look like it has been flocked for the holidays. Well, it hasn’t and you need to treat for scale as soon as you notice it. To control scale, remove infected fronds (if it’s not too wide spread) and treat the whole plant with horticultural oil (be sure to treat in the evening or morning, not during the heat of the day). Follow the directions on the horticultural oil for treatment, but most likely you will be spraying weekly for a period of weeks. In really bad cases of scale, you may have to treat with a systemic insecticide drench (but only if the plant is too far gone to be treated with horticultural oil).
Sago palms are dioecious, meaning individual plants are either female or male, but not both. They reach maturity around 15 years, but this is dependent on growing conditions. Once mature, male plants will produce a tall, yellow cone and female plants will produce a felt-like, cabbage shaped cone in the middle of the fronds. Female cones will open when they are ready to be fertilized. If there is a male cone within the vicinity of a female cone, there is no need to do anything. Seeds will be fertile and can be collected when they fall from the female cone (at this point the female cone should be falling apart). New plants can be grown from seeds or pups. Sago palms won’t produce cones every year. Typically cones are produced every second or third year. If conditions aren’t right, sago palms might not produce cones at all.
If you are still feeling a little squirrely about jumping that fence, there’s no need to worry. Remember, we have lots of plants in our local landscapes and in our homes that are poisonous if ingested. Oleanders, azaleas, geraniums, hyacinths, narcissus and daffodils are just a few poisonous plants commonly grown. Believe me, the list of common household and landscapes plants that are poisonous to pets and humans in some way is long and includes things like peach pits and apple seeds. Common sense and good judgment is always important, but especially when it comes to the safety of pets and children.
Bonus fun facts – Sago palms predate history (going back at least 200 million years) and they are not actually palms at all. They are gymnosperms in the cycad family and they are more closely related to conifers and ginkgos than palm trees. I would really love to see someone plant a few sago palms and then buy our Velociraptor sculpture to go along with them. How cool would that be???? Somebody, please do that!