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>>Cycads >>Cycad Help & Advice >>Establishing A Caudex In Pumice


Establishing A Cycad Caudex Or Offset In Pumice
by Phil & Jesse Bergman

This article deals with establishing cycad plants and successful removal, growth, and propagation of basal suckers   


Sago in garden

Cycas revoluta with several leafed out pups on the right side of the base of the main trunk
(click photo to enlarge)


Sago Palm pups

Cycas revoluta pups
(click photo to enlarge)


Sago palm close up

Cycas revoluta offsets, close-up
(click photo to enlarge)



Establishing a cycad caudex (a tree trunk that only forms leaves at its apex) or offset in pumice can be both fun and easy. As a cycad matures, it will often form basal growths that are called suckers or pups.  These are small vegetative offsets and will be the same species and sex as the mother plant.  Left undisturbed, they can mature to full size.  However, these offsets also offer a means of propagating the plant.  When pups reach a certain size, they can be removed and propagated.  These pups will eventually make a normal, full-sized plant.  Of interest, some species sucker more than others.  The following steps will help you to know how to remove and establish your cycad plants.

It doesn't matter which species or type of cycad you are propagating.  The rules that apply to an Encephalartos also apply to the common Sago Palm.  

This is a rudimentary introduction to removing or establishing your cycad pups, or establishing an un-rooted caudex.  . The following steps will help you with the “do's” and “don’ts” of removing and rooting Sago or other cycad caudexes. You will also find important information on the care and growth requirements of cycads.

Removing caudexes

Removing a caudex from your Sago or other cycad is a way to make the plant look less messy and/or to propagate more plants. The procedure is easy if you follow these simple instructions:

1.  Dig away and fully expose the caudex you want to remove. 

2.  Spray away excess dirt from the pup and the mother plant. 

3. Use a sharp, cleansed (to sterilize use bleach and then rinse with water) cutting tool such as a saw, chisel or knife to cut off the pup. It is important to make a clean cut as damaged or roughly cut tissue is a prime place for rot to form. Bare in mind that when you remove a pup, you are not only at risk to lose the pup, but also to losing or harming the mother plant. With proper precaution, though, this can be avoided.

4. When you remove a pup, cut at the base or side of the pup where it meets the mother plant.

5.  Apply a fungicide powder to the cut area.  Some people would seal the cut surface with agricultural tar at this time.  Others would leave the cut area of your mother plant exposed for 1-2 weeks so that it can callous over.  Everyone agrees not to replace the dirt around the cut surface for at least several weeks.  

6. At some point weeks to possibly a month or two later, replace the dirt around the cut and treated surface of the mother plant.

7. Store the removed offsets in a dry, protected location until you are ready to do the work needed to start the rooting-out process.  Most growers would set up the pups fairly promptly, although they can store safely for weeks or even months.  Do not refrigerate or freeze the offsets.    

cycad with offsets

Encephalartos caudex with three small offsets, all too small to remove
(click photo to enlarge)


encephalartos horridus with offset

Encephalartos horridus, lateral offset forming
(click photo to enlarge)




cycad pup not roots

Encephalartos offset, removed and sealed at proximal end.
(click photo to enlarge)


cycad trunk rot

Cycad trunk, previously dissected, close-up showing recurrent soft tissue with thumb going into caudex
(click photo to enlarge)


Bottom of cycad offset

Bottom rot on Encephalartos caudix
(click photo to enlarge)


Checking your caudex

If you have removed your own caudexes or have bought them from another, the following rules are important in preparing your plant:

You want to be sure that the caudex is free of rot (in cycads rot can manifest itself by having a dark tan to brown/black color; the plant’s tissue also tends to be soft). This is important as rot can cause the plant to decline or possibly die if it is not addressed. If you find rot, use a sharp, sterile cutting tool to remove it. Cut the rot away until you have only hard tissue that is whitish or a light tan. Note: in some cases you may not find whitish or light tan tissue; in such cases, cut back to hard tissue. Do not over dissect the cycad as this can kill it.  The cycad illustrated here shows rot on the bottom of the trunk and is soft to probing by the finger.

2. (Important: When dealing with chemicals, always use the proper protective gear: gloves, masks, etc.
After you have cut away rot or if the plant was healthy to begin with, soak the plant in both a fungicide and root stimulant. First soak your plant in a liquid fungicide solution for 30 minutes. Next you will want to soak your plant in a root stimulant, like napthaleneactic acid with thiamine hydrochloride (most liquid root stimulants will work), for 30 minutes. The reason why I recommend soaking the plants in 30 minute intervals is because it allows the caudex to absorb both the fungicide and root stimulant into its tissue. I have had much more success with soaking rather than a rudimentary spraying of a caudex. When you soak your cycad in the fungicide and root stimulant, you should look and see if the caudex floats. Cycad caudexes will float if they are desiccated or if they have central rot. It typically means that the cycad will not establish and will die.

cycad pup no roots

Encephalartos, healthy caudex but no roots yet
(click photo to enlarge)



Planting and establishing your caudex

Now that you have soaked your plant in a fungicide and a root stimulant, your cycad is now ready to be planted. The following instructions explain how to plant and establish your caudex:

1. Sprinkle a powder root stimulant, such as idole-3-butyric acid, onto the base of the caudex and/or the roots of the plant.

2. If you had to dissect your caudex at all or if it was removed, you should now seal the cuts with an agricultural tar; apply the tar to areas that have been but only. This assists in keeping the cut surface clean and also helps to protect from future rot.  Other sealing agents such as melted wax can be used.

3. You will need new clean pumice or scoria. When you plant your caudex, it is important to use pumice or scoria because it is a dry medium and you are less likely to incur rot or other problems such as excessive wetness which can lead to rot. I would not suggest using something like perlite in establishing your cycads as I have found that your risk of rot is higher because it does not drain as well.  Some growers use coarse sand.  Remember to inspect your caudex for rot before potting it..  This may not be apparent from the top of the caudex, so check the bottom. . 

4.  The size of pot you use first in establishing your caudex is not very important. It should be large enough to accommodate the size of the caudex and give some room to form roots, about 4-6 inches. You will need to put packing popcorn (or similar) in the bottom of the pot to keep the pumice or scoria from coming out.  We generally put enough of the caudex below the pumice soil line to stabilize the plant.  For a very round caudex, this is generally about 1/3 the way up the side of the offset.  It is a mistake to bury the entire caudex in the pumice or "stand it on its toes".   The latter leads to instability which can latter lead to formed roots breaking.  The former leads to watering the crown of the caudex. 

5.  The time it takes a cycad to establish can vary, but a fairly accurate estimate of time would be 6-10 months for the cycad to make roots and a flush of leaves. This is not always the case though, sometimes it can take a year or more. Zamias, in my experience, can establish more quickly.  We have had offsets that took over two years to establish roots.  An important variable is the ambient temperature.  Rooting occurs more rapidly with hot weather.  Bottom heat is generally not necessary.  

6.  When your plant has formed roots and sent out a flush of leaves, you can plant the cycad in the ground or move it up into a lager pot. Ensure that the cycad has good roots. If you see roots coming from the bottom of the pot, this is a good indication that the plant is ready.  Leaving it for extended periods in the pumice is possible, but remember that your fertilizing program will have to make up for this rather sterile medium.

7.  In the case of moving the cycad up into a lager pot, you use a deep pot (cycads tend to like deep pots). In my experience they grow faster and seem to be healthier in a deep pot. As regards soil, I recommend using a mixture of 1 part peat moss, 1 part sand, 1 part perlite, 1 part orchid bark, ˝ part agricultural charcoal (if you can find it) and 3 parts pumice or scoria.


Frequently asked questions and things 
you should know

Should your cycad be on bottom heat or should it be in a greenhouse? 
In most warmer environments it is not necessary to establish your cycad in a greenhouse or on bottom heat. However, in a cooler climate, a greenhouse can help you to establish your cycad more rapidly.  I do not like using bottom heat on most species of cycads.  It can make your cycad root more quickly, but there is an increased risk of rot and loss.  If you are attempting to get roots in the winter, perhaps bottom heat would be beneficial.  In general, it is not necessary.  

How do I water my cycad when I am establishing it?
When you water your cycad, it is important that you do not water down the crown (central apex of the caudex) of the plant. Watering down the crown of a cycad will cause rot. You should only water the pumice around the plant.  Definitely do not use an overhead misting system.

How often should I water?
In most climates you only need to water once or twice a week depending on how hot you are. If you are not particularly warm watering once every 10-14 days is adequate.

What if my cycad makes a leaf or leaves but does not make any roots? 
This is something to be wary of. When this happens your plant is at risk of dying. It is making an effort to survive, but does not have the energy to make both leaves and roots.  Sometimes this is the result of the plant's biological clock automatically throwing leaves even though the plant has been removed from the mother plant.  Ideally when your sucker establishes, it will first make roots and then it will flush a set of leaves. When a caudex only makes leaves, I recommend cutting the leaves back partially or removing them completely. You can also treat the plant with a fungicide. From experience there is not much you can do with a cycad when this happens; the chances are that the plant will die, but not always.

When should I take my cycad out of pumice or scoria? 
You can keep a cycad in pumice for a long time. I recommend waiting until you see root emerging from the bottom of the pot. You will need to fertilize, though, as pumice and scoria do not have any nutritional value. If you do not fertilize, it can take longer to establish and the leaves can look anemic.

How large should a cycad caudex be before it is removed?
With Sago Palms (Cycas revoluta) you can get away with removing them when they are smaller, about the size of a baseball or smaller.  With most species, however, I would advise you to wait until the plant is at least the size of a softball or grapefruit (3-4 inch diameter or larger).  The larger the caudex, the better the success rate.  This is because a larger caudex has more stored energy and might also have started rooting out on it's own.  It is less dependent on the mother plant.  Through trial and error I have found that to go smaller than a baseball size is unadvisable.

What species are easiest to establish?
I have found that there are definitely some species that are easy to establish and some which are not. Encephalartos, Cycas, Dioons, Zamias and Lepidozamias are easy to establish if you follow the above-mentioned recommendations. Ceratozamias and Macrozamias tend to be very difficult.  Within the genera themselves, there are easier species and difficult ones.  Unfortunately, the prized Encephalartos latifrons and Encephalartos woodii have  proven extremely difficult to establish as an offset.      


Clean pumice.
(click photo to enlarge)


removing cycad from pot

Removing a well rooted caudex of E. horridus
(click photo to enlarge)


removing cycad from pot

Removing a well rooted caudix of E. horridus
(click photo to enlarge)


roots encephalartos horridus

Roots on a well rooted caudex of E. horridus
(click photo to enlarge)


well rooted cycad

A well rooted caudex of E. horridus.
(click photo to enlarge)




early roots encephalartos horridus

Early root formation on an Encephalartos caudex.
(click photo to enlarge)


new leaves cycad

Powerful throw of leaves on caudex established twelve months previously.
(click photo to enlarge)



new throw leaves encephalartos horridus

Throw of leaves, new, from E. horridus
(click photo to enlarge)












encephalartos latifrons

Encephalartos latifrons
(click photo to enlarge)

encephalartos horridus leaves

Encephalartos horridus, first set of leaves after rooting out.
(click photo to enlarge)



encephalartos horridus in pot

A well established and rooted caudix of E. horridus
(click photo to enlarge)

With the above tools, you should be well on your way to establishing cycads. Your enemy is rot, but with what you know now you should have sufficient skill to both avoid and eradicate rot if or when it happens.


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