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Ornamental Sago Palms Are Easy to Grow and Resilient

First of Two Parts. Next Week: Caring for Sago Palms

March 24, 2001|U.C. MASTER GARDENERS

Question: The sago palm seems to be highly prized by many home gardeners and professional landscapers. What are the reasons for its attraction? Does it have special cultivation requirements that make it difficult to grow?

S.V., Stanton

Answer: The sago palm's reputation is well-deserved. It is a striking ornamental plant of primitive origins that is easy to care for and equally useful in the garden landscape, as an indoor/outdoor container, or a bonsai pot.

It is also a resilient plant renowned for its great longevity and its toughness in the face of sometimes harsh environmental conditions. There are several specimens at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino that were planted nearly a century ago.

One unfortunate byproduct of the sago palm's virtues is an increased incidence of theft in recent years, particularly of valuable specimens in or about residential frontyards.

The sago palm, Cycas revoluta, belongs to the cycad family, which represents the most primitive form of seed-bearing plants.

Often called "living fossils," these plants trace their origins to the flora of the early Mesozoic era and have changed little since their time among the dinosaurs some 200 million years ago.

They originate from the southern tip of Kyushu Island in Japan and from Okinawa and other islands in the Ryuku chain, where they thrive on nearly vertical limestone cliffs.

Though commonly known as a "palm," sago palms are actually related to conifers and gingko trees--cone-bearing plants that occupy a botanical position between true flowering plants and flowerless plants such as ferns, mosses and algae.

As a young plant, the sago palm has the lacy look of a fern, but with age and maturity it takes on a tropical palm-like appearance.

The somewhat burly upright trunk (occasionally multiple trunks) has a starchy interior and is crowned with rosettes of frond-like leaves growing out of a central point at the top.

The visual effect produced is a rather formal structural arrangement of leaves that makes the sago palm a striking focus in the garden.

The individual leaflets making up the frond are extremely hard, almost as though they were molded from plastic, and if accidentally bent they will die and turn yellow because the only interior moisture-carrying vein has been broken.

Sago palms do not add foliage on a continuous basis. Instead, they produce a flush of leaves called a "break" on a periodic basis, typically every year or two.

As the plant ages, the number of new leaves increases, and a mature specimen can produce 30 or more of them.

The new leaves are very soft and until they have hardened remain susceptible to damage. Eventually, offsets ("pups") start to grow at the base of the specimen and sometimes from the crown.

These can be removed and you will have new plants.

The other means of propagating is by seed. Like all cycads, sago palms are dioecious, which means that individual specimens are either male or female. It is often difficult to know a plant's gender until it produces cones, which is done only by mature specimens.

The male cone has the appearance of an elongated pine cone composed of scales that open at maturity to shed pollen. The female cone has more or less the appearance of a cabbage with large, ragged leathery scales covered by a tan felt-like material. Inside are large red seeds that mature to the size of a walnut in two to three months after pollination.

Propagating by seed is a slow process. To do so, remove the seeds in early winter after they have gone through their summer development period. Soak them in water for several days, then remove the skin.

Plant the seeds sideways in well-drained, moist soil with the top edge exposed. They will germinate in three to nine months, but may need as much as three years to reach just one inch in diameter.

Pups as a source of new plants should be removed with a hand trowel or sharp shovel, depending on size. All of the pup's leaves and roots are removed and set aside for a week or so to permit the raw spot to heal.

Plant the pup in well-drained soil with half of it below soil level, preferably in a shady area. Allow the soil to dry and then water it thoroughly. Roots will gradually form and leaves will appear several months later, at which time you should lightly fertilize.

After a good root system has formed, repot the plant in the garden or in a container.

--Written by University of California Master Gardener in Training Edward A. Shaw of Laguna Beach.

Have a problem in your yard? University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Master Gardeners are here to help. These trained and certified horticultural volunteers are dedicated to extending research-based, scientifically accurate information to the public about home horticulture and pest management. They are involved with a variety of outreach programs, including the UCCE Master Garden hotline, which provides answers to specific questions. You can reach the hotline at (714) 708-1646 or send e-mail to ucmastergardeners Calls and e-mail are picked up daily and are generally returned within two to three days. Please include your name and city of residence.

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