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>>Cycads >>Cycad Help & Advice >>The Sago Palm, Cycas revoluta


THE SAGO PALM, CYCAS REVOLUTA - Cold Hardy Large Cycad

by Phil Bergman


Comprehensive Article Discussing:
   Sago Palm appearance
   Sago Palm culture
   Sago Palm propagation
   Other types of Sago Palms
   Sago Palm, frequently asked questions
 

Sago Palm, Cycas revoluta   Sago Palm multiple

 

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Clumping sago palms
Cycas revoluta
(Sago Palm), with multiple "clumps".
(click photo to enlarge)
Introduction


The Sago Palm, Cycas revoluta, is a cold hardy cycad that attains good size and has become a very popular landscape item  It is the most common cycad used in landscape today.  But most people don’t realize that it is not a palm at all.  Rather this plant is a Cycad, a totally different type of plant.  There are over 200 different types of cycads.  Cycads are a group of plants that are very primitive in their origins. Fossils have been found on almost every continent on the planet. It is often stated that cycads have evolved little since the days of the dinosaurs. There are species that have gone extinct, while there are others that seemed to show little evolution over millions of years. Therefore as a group, cycads are often referred to as “living fossils”. The scientific name for the Sago Palm is Cycas revoluta. Cycas refers to the genus, the genus refers to a particular group of similar plants in the Cycad family and revoluta further describes the exact species of the group Cycas. The latter was given to this species because of the revolute (to curl back) nature of the leaflets; the edges roll under the leaflet.  Many people misspell the name of this cycad as "Cycad revoluta" or "Cica revoluta".  The genus is "Cycas".

The Sago Palm is the most propagated and sold cycad in the world. It is seen in almost all botanical gardens, in temperate and tropical locations and in many areas of the world it  is heavily promoted commercially as a landscape plant. Unfortunately, its common name "Sago Palm" has obscured the fact that it is actually a cycad.  Other names for this species include the sago palm tree, the king sago, and, because of unfamiliarity with it, the palm cycad.
Old Specimen of the Sago Palm, Cycas revoluta
Old specimens of  Sago Palms, (Cycas revoluta).
(click photo to enlarge)
Branching sago palms
Approximately 75 year old plant showing a branching trunk.
(click photo to enlarge)

Description Of The Sago Palm

Sago Palms have erect, sturdy trunks that are typically about one to two feet in diameter, sometimes wider and can grow into very old specimens with twenty feet of trunk. The leaves are a dark olive green and about three to four feet long when the plants are of a reproductive age. They can be longer if not grown in full sun. Trunks can branch multiple times, thus producing multiple heads of leaves. The trunks are rough and retain the old leaf bases of previous leaves. It is also the norm that plants will produce basal offsets or “suckers” at the base of the main trunk. Thus one gets a cluster of many plants and trunks with time. The petiole or stems of Cycas revoluta have small protective barbs or hooks that one must avoid during pruning. An older plant with a well-established trunk will have foliage overhead. Younger plants look like a rosette of leaves coming from a stem near the ground. 
cycas revoluta with leafed out pups
Cycas revoluta with leafed out pups.
(click photo to enlarge)

Sago palms can produce trunk offsets
Cycas revoluta (Sago Palm), producing suckers on trunk.
(click photo to enlarge)


Female cone of cycas revoluta
Cycas revoluta specimen with female cone.
(click photo to enlarge)

Reproduction Of The Sago Palm

Propagation of sago palms is either by seed or by removal of basal offsets. Offsets typically occur at ground level next to the main stem. Suckers also can actually occur above the ground on the trunk. Please read below for information on removal and propagation of suckers. 

As with other cycads, the Sago Palm has either male or female cones (the reproductive part of a cycad). Male cones protrude and are shaped like a cone or torpedo, whereas females are "cabbage" shaped and are gold or tan-yellow in color. The female cone will slowly open up when receptive to pollen. 

A female plant cannot produce viable, fertile seed unless it is pollinated. In the wild this can occur by wind dispersion of male pollen but it is believed that most of the pollination is done by native insects. However, it is quite common for an isolated female plant to produce unfertile seeds that appear to be "good". They will have the traditional red colored fruit but lack an inner embryo and will not germinate. Pollination of a receptive female cone can be done naturally by insects or artificially by man. After fertile seeds are collected, they usually need several months of storage before the inner embryo is ready to germinate. Therefore, it is best to clean the seeds of external fruit and set them aside before attempting to propagate the seeds.  
Sago producing suckers on trunk
Cycas revoluta with leafed out pups, close-up. 
(click photo to enlarge)


Cycas revoluta with male cycad cone
Cycas revoluta
, specimen with male cone.
(click photo to enlarge)
Cycas revoluta cycad barbs on petiole
Photo showing barbs on petiole of the Sago Palm
(click photo to enlarge)


Example of deep pots.
Example of ideal deep plant containers.
(click photo to enlarge)

Growing Sago Palms

Growing of Cycas revoluta is not difficult if simple rules are followed. First, do give ample root depth by picking a pot or container that is deep. By this I mean preferably a pot 16 inches deep or more (a smaller container can be used when the plant is small). It is quicker and easier to grow Cycas revoluta in the ground as opposed to a container. In general, Sago Palms need sun to grow well. In coastal areas, it is best to plant them in full sun. In more interior locations or desert localities, they still prefer good sun or at least part day sun. Growing the Sago Palm in the shade typically gives one lanky, stretched-out leaves that are weak. If in too much shade, this species can actually just stall and do nothing (such as refusing to throw any new leaves).   

The Sago Palm can be grown inside the house near a bright window. Like other cycads, they do not want to be over-watered. Let the soil dry out a bit before watering. Try to avoid overhead watering; this may cause rot and possibly total decay of the plant. The soil mix should be quick draining. The plants are quite cold hardy and can tolerate temperatures below 20° F. Overall, it is an available species that is quite versatile and easy to grow. It is usually free from pests but can occasionally get into problems with scale or mealy bug, which should be treated. Fertilizing with a balanced tropical fertilizer with microelements will usually suffice. Sagos typically throw a new set of leaves during the Spring or Summer. 

Because the Sago Palm is grown so much commercially, it is not in any way threatened by extinction.  Some refer to it as the "palm sago" or "sego palm", but the true common name is "Sago Palm". First discovered in the late 1700’s, it is native to various areas of Southern Japan, it natively experiences mild to somewhat cold temperatures. It is commonly used as a potted plant and the size can be stunted if not given ample root room. For this reason, it is quite popular as a bonsai plant. It is not unusual to hear of potted specimens that are hundreds of years old. In general, the Sago Palm does much better and grows more quickly when planted in the ground. It prefers sandy, well draining soil.  For more information on sago palm care and "cycad babies" and how to remove them, read below. 

Throw of new leaves
Throw of new leaves
(click photo to enlarge)


Cycas revoluta grown in a pot
Cycas revoluta grown in a pot.
(click photo to enlarge)
  Sago Palm             Sago Palm Trunks
Sago leaves on nursery plant.  Second photo of freshly removed offsets ready for propagation
 
  Sago Palm       Sago Palm
Two larger boxed nursery Sago Palms
 
  Cycas revoluta     Cycas revouta male cones
Sago Palms in the landscape.                Second photo of multiple male cones.

 
 

 

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT SAGO PALMS

 
 
Sago Palm 
Typical appearance of
the Sago Palm with age

“Do I have a Sago Palm?” 



The best way to tell if you have a Sago Palm is to look at photographs of Cycas revoluta and see if you recognize it as your plant. There are other species of Cycas that look similar to the Sago, but this species is easily identified once you become familiar with it. If it looks like the photos of a Sago Palm and you didn’t actively seek out a rare species when you bought it, the chances are that you have a Sago Palm. Sagos are the most common cycad around.  If you bought a new property and it happens to have a cycad in the garden, and it looks like a Sago, the chances are once again that it is a Sago Palm. Other species are more rare, but there’s always a chance that it could be something different. Look at our Cycad Photo Gallery. That might help you determine this.

Old Specimen of the Sago Palm, Cycas revoluta
 Typical appearance of
a Cycas revoluta.
(click photo to enlarge)
sago palm branching trunk
 Very old, branching specimen
of Cycas revoluta

“How fast does a Sago Palm grow?” 

The answer to this question is typically that it is a slow grower.  But, it grows faster in the ground and with heat.  So, it depends on where you live, how much sun it gets, and overall culture. This species is much faster growing in tropical areas of the world. Contrast this to a plant that is being root restricted in a small container, and one sees a whole gradient of growth rates. However, under most conditions, the Sago Palm is a good grower. It can put on a foot of trunk in eight to ten years. Typically plants will not cone until they are over ten years, sometimes much longer. If you live in our locality in California, a plant that has three to four feet of trunk is typically about 20 years of age or older.  The plant to the right is probably fifty or more years old.
 
 

“Can I dig and move my Sago?”

 The answer is yes. One would preferably dig a very large root ball, giving ample distance from the trunk. This would optimally be done during the Spring or Summer. Care should be taken not to cut through any sizeable roots (greater than one inch) or rot could set in. It is also advised to remove a good portion of the leaves before attempting to relocate the plant, especially if a smaller than desirable root ball is unavoidable. Water it adequately after moving, making sure not to over-water the plant. The Sago Palm is quite durable. As a nurseryman, it is quite easy to reestablish plants that have had all of their leaves and roots removed. But, common sense would lead you to avoid damage to existing roots if possible.
 
 cycas revoluta offset
Example of a removed offset of
the Sago Palm, Cycas revoluta
Note dirt still on bottom

“Can I remove the babies on my Sago Palm?”

Yes. It is best not to remove the basal suckers until they are at least 10 to 15 cm in diameter. We recommend removing most or all of the leaves. Clean equipment must be used. The sucker is removed at its base, without scaring or damaging the mother trunk. This is best done with a somewhat curved saw blade or a sharp chisel. Protect the mother trunk by moving dirt away from the point of attachment and letting it callus over for a few weeks after removal of the offset. Many people will treat the cut surface of both the offset and mother plant with a fungicide and some type of sealing material such as tar or wax. The removed offset can also be treated with growth stimulants, often a powder like "Root Take" or "Root Tone" as shown to the right.  It's applied to the bottom of the removed caudex/pup.  Then, the caudex should be place in the shade in a rapidly draining mix. We prefer to use pumice (ground lava foam), although people often use sand, perlite, or other materials. Water just to keep the pumice slightly damp. Avoid watering the offset; rather water the soil. The pup should root out and leaf within six to twelve months. Failure will be discovered if the offset collapses or becomes very soft on squeezing. Once rooted and leafed, gradually move the young plant can be repotted into a regular cycad soil and moved into brighter light. A greenhouse environment may speed up this propagation process. Bottom heat is usually not necessary, but can be used.
root tone
 Rooting hormone brand
Take Root
; a combination of root stimulant and fungicide.
(Click photo to enlarge)
 

“Can I grow plants from my seeds?” 

The answer to this depends on whether or not you have fertile seeds. Did the cone get pollinated? Remember, females can produce seeds that look good but are infertile and will never germinate. If you have a male that is coning, the pollen can be collected from the male and put into the female cone. This can be done dry or with a solution of pollen. Multiple attempt should be done to pollinate a receptive female. If you do have fertile seeds, the red fruit should be removed and the seeds allowed to dry and age for about three or four months. One can actually cut open these aged seeds and look for a maturing embryo inside the seed. It will appear as a ribbon like structure or a cream colored band in the center of the seed when the seed is cut on a longitudinal basis (along the long axis of the seed). As the seed matures, this embryo starts extending toward the end of the seed where it will eventually emerge. To germinate cycad seeds, most growers utilize bottom heat or a greenhouse. However, this is not mandatory. Use a well draining mix like a peat moss/perlite mixture and water about every third day. Frequent misting is not necessary. When the seed has established and put up one firm, opened leaf, the seedling can be removed from the germination mix and potted into a small container.

Cycas revoluta sporophylls 
Cycas revoluta with male cone
Cycas revoluta, specimen with male cone.
(click photo to enlarge)

“Do I have a male or female plant?”

You can only tell if your plant is a male or female when the plant is or has shown its reproductive cones. In many types of cycads, the male cone looks like a yellow-cream colored corn cob and the female looks more like a cabbage head. When ready, the male cone will dump out a powder like white substance called pollen. This pollen needs to be transferred to the female cone. The female cone is usually larger than the male, especially after it has been pollinated and is setting seeds. However, with the Sago Palm and other Cycas species, the female cones appear different. It does not look like a pineapple. It emerges from the central area of the crown and sort of look like a round mass of twisted and compacted tiny leaves. You might say it looks like the plant is having a “bad hair day”. The female sporophylls (reproductive parts) of this reproductive part are cream colored and circular. The male cone is upright, somewhat bristly, and looks like a long rough torpedo. Pollen is released from the male and is transferred to the female when receptive. When receptive, the female can be seen to open up slightly between the many sporophylls. Sagos typically cone during the Spring or Summer. If a plant cones, it might not put out new leaves that year. Also, it is not unusual for the leaves of a female plant to lay down in a near horizontal plane when the female plant blossoms. Even if the plant is not actively in blossom, one can often tell if it’s a female because of the frilly sporophylls that lay down on the upper outer side of the trunk near the leaves (see photos). Or, you might see an old brown male cone laying on it’s side inside the crown of leaves, showing that you have a male plant.

Cycas revoluta female cone
The sporophylls at the
 top of the trunk show that
this plant is a female.  These
are the remains of the old female cone.
(click photo to enlarge)

“Are the seeds on my Sago Palm good?”

If you have a male plant nearby and you live in the tropics, it is possible that insects could have transferred pollen to your female. But, if there are no male Cycas nearby and you didn’t artificially pollinate the cone, then the chances are that your seeds are no good. Infertile seeds won’t show an embryo inside when you cut open the seeds. They also will often have an empty central cavity (where the embryo should be) and consequently float in water. It is possible for some Cycas seeds to float and still be good, but ideally your seeds will sink in water.

 
Cycas revoluta female cone with seeds. 
Female fertilized cone
showing red seeds buried among
the cone sporophylls.  A cone
may have hundreds of seeds that become more apparent with age.
(click photo to enlarge)

“When can I pick my Sago Palm seeds?”

Do not harvest your seeds if they are not mature. As the seeds form, they increase in size and change from a cream or yellow color into a bright orange color. Mature seeds will turn a colorful orange color, are somewhat hairy, and are mixed among the female sporophylls. It is best to collect them when they fall on their own from the sporophylls or can be removed with a minimal touch of the seeds. Sometimes the seeds will actually get hung up inside of the female blossom and must be coaxed out with an instrument. If you have to “yank” them off the blossom, it is best to wait until they can be removed easily. Remember to clean off the fruit, allow them to dry, and store them for several months (in a sock or woman’s nylon for ventilation) as this type of cycad has an “after-ripening period” that is needed before the seeds will germinate. The fruit is firmly attached initially. One can soak the seeds for several days (changing the water daily) to soften up the fruit. Typically it can be removed with a knife or other implement. After you store the seeds for a few months, hydrate them with a 24 hour clean water soak before potting them up.

 
 

“How do I germinate my seeds?”

After storing and hydrating the seeds as above, place them on their side in your growing medium. We usually use about three parts perlite to one part peat moss and put many seeds into one container (a community pot). One can use other mediums including sand if you wish. Although not space efficient, you could place one seed into a tiny pot for initial germination. The seeds should be submerged about half their depth into the soil mix. Place the container in the shade in a warm location. One can use a greenhouse to get faster results. Water to keep the mix damp. Don’t over water. The seeds will germinate out of the end of the seed, first showing a growing radical (tap root) which will go down into the mix. Following this by a month or two will be the leaf. It is quite fragile when young and can break if handled roughly. Once this leaf is firm, the seedling can be carefully removed from the germination container and potted up individually.

sago palm seeds
 Community pot of cycad
seeds germinating.
(click photo to enlarge)
 

“My Sago Palm hasn’t put out leaves for several years. What’s wrong?” 

Failure to put out new leaves can be from many causes. Perhaps your plant is not in enough sun or your locality is too cold for good growth. It could be that there is an unrecognized root problem or rot. It could be the plant is nutritionally starved. Or, the plant may be getting ready to put out its reproductive cone. We usually recommend correcting cultural problems and giving the plant time. Most plants grown well will eventually put out new leaves.

 
Cycas revoluta plant bad leaves 
Leaves looking bad.  This
plant will throw a new set
of leaves in summer.
(click photo to enlarge)

“The leaves on my Sago Palm look bad. What’s the problem?” 


This is a bit of a complicated question. You might want to read our article “My cycad is in trouble”, elsewhere at this website. The plant might be stealing nutrition from the old leaves in preparation for production of new leaves. Or, you may have a cultural problem. If you have total discoloration of the leaves, check the caudex or stem. Is it firm and hard? Or, is it getting soft or mushy. The latter almost guarantees that the plant will die. If there’s just a big of brown tipping on the ends of the leaflets, this can mean a lack of fertilizer or can appear before the plant throws new leaves. We recommend fertilizing the plant and waiting. If the problem is new leaves are coming, time will explain the observed leaf discoloration. If no new leaves appear for a year or more, your problem is probably some type of cultural deficit. 

 
 

"Are cycads poisonous to eat?"

The answer is yes.  In the plant world there are lots of plants and seeds that should not be eaten.  Seeds and plant material from the Sago Palm and other cycads can be toxic to people and animals.  Do not eat any plant material from a cycad.  And, make sure you pets don't eat the seeds, leaves or trunks of a cycad.  




 
encephalartos horridus 
Encephalartos horridus,
another type of cycad.
(click photo to enlarge)


Zamia elegantissima
Zamia elegantissima at nursery

“Are there other types of Sago Palms?”

The answer is a definite yes! We do sell Sago Palms, but our real love is for the whole family of cycads. We are presently growing over 150 species or varieties of cycads. I've shown a few to either side here.  There are over 300  species that are known to exist somewhere on this planet. Cycads vary in size: some are quite small, others get massive. The colors of the leaves are quite variable; some are green, others gray, and some as blue as the morning sky. Some a prickly, others soft and touchable. Some are quick growing; others are slow and never get big. Some like sun, others like protection and shade. Some like tropical conditions; others like it hot and dry. As long as your area doesn’t get really cold, there is probably a species of cycad you can grow. Cycads are truly a remarkable group of plants and great for any landscape areas. But, I must warn you of one thing. Cycads are addictive. Once you get hooked on them, they are like the lure of a beautiful orchid. You just want to try a few more. Look in our Cycad Photo Gallery and you will see why cycads are becoming on of the fastest growing collector and landscape plants.












dioon mejiae
 Dioon mejiae, another
type of cycad.
(click photo to enlarge)

Dioon merolae
Dioon merolae at nursery




Sago Palm Cycas revoluta cycas revoluta sago palm at a home 
     


 

 

END OF ARTICLE

 

 

Thanks for reading our article on the Sago Palm.

 

Phil Bergman, Owner and Author

Jungle Music Palms and Cycads

Nursery Address: 450 Ocean View Ave, Encinitas, CA 92024

Phone: 619 291 4605

Hours: Monday - Saturday, 9AM to 4PM

Directions to Nursery

 

 

 

(End)

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Email:

phil.bergman@junglemusic.net

Website:

www.junglemusic.net

Nursery Location:

 450 Ocean View Ave., Encinitas, CA  92024

Nursery Phone:  619 291 4605
Nursery Hours:

 Monday - Saturday, 9AM - 4PM
 Sunday typically closed

Directions to Nursery: Freeway Close. Take Freeway 5 to Encinitas
(10 minutes south of Oceanside, 30 minutes north of San Diego). 
Exit Leucadia Blvd West (toward ocean).
Immediate left on Orpheus Ave, left on Union St,
Right on Ocean View Ave to Nursery, which is at 450 Ocean View Ave
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3233 Brant Street, San Diego, CA 92103

 

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