How To Grow And Care For a Sago Palm Plant

The sago palm (Cycas revoluta) is prehistoric. It has been around since the dinosaurs.  Despite the name they are not true palms but are cycads.  The main difference between cycads and palms is that cycads do not flower and palm trees flower or produce fruit.  Sago palm (Cycas revoluta) are slow growers.  The sago palm plant will grow about a foot every ten years.  A mature sago palm will grow to around 10 to 12 feet tall and take about 50 to 60 years.

Not Really A Palm

The leaves, called fronds, on a sago palm plant usually span about as wide as the sago palm is tall.  Some of mine have grown more and some less depending on the amount of sun and water it receives.  I love how I have many of the same sago palm plants but each one has different and unique qualities.

1 Small ten year old sago palm
This sago palm is ten years old.  It is one of our slower growers.  

How to Grow a Sago Palm Indoors

Low-Maintenance

Taking care of your sago palm plant is not time-consuming. The sago palm thrives with minimal maintenance.  You need to make sure that you have planted your sago palm plant in an environment that it loves. I live in the southeast and it is very humid.  The sago palm plant likes the heat and humidity. There are many sago palms in the south where temperatures are warmer and there are very few times temperatures reach freezing.  You also must make sure that there is a lot of drainage in the soil. The sago palm plants like to have a dry sandy type of soil.

2 two connected sago palms that were pups
This is actually two connected sago palms that were pups and thankfully came up very quickly after the temperatures rose in the spring.  The original sago palm in this spot died during the freeze. 

Cold Hardy

The sago palm plants can withstand the cold but when it reaches freezing temperatures it can kill or severely stunt the growth. We had a freeze two years ago that taught me a very important lesson.  You need to cover your sago palm plants when the forecast predicts freezing temperatures. Sago palms are very hearty and can withstand low temperatures but the extra protection of covering them is always a good idea.

We did learn that the sago palm is a survivor. We thought that two of our sago palms did not make the storm. The plants did die, but there were pups that survived because new sago palms sprouted up underneath the dead soggy plant.  I had to remove the dead plants. When the base is spongy in appearance and looks waterlogged, you know your sago palm did not survive. The sago palm plants do not like to be continually wet. They need a good system of drainage. Since the snow lasted for 10 days it kept the sago palm too wet.  The bigger sago palms had a larger base or trunk and survived.

Light

These plants prefer to be in indirect but bright light for the majority of the day. You do want to avoid putting them in direct sunlight, especially during the summertime when the hot afternoon sun comes around. Doing so can result in burnt foliage and wilting. However, if they don’t get enough light, you can end up with very sparse foliage and an unhealthy plant. If you have this plant indoors, put it in a bright west, east, or south-facing window. You can move it outside once warmer weather hits, as long as you put it in a place with dappled light.

Temperature and Humidity

Sago Palms love humid, warm conditions to grow in. They can tolerate very brief colder temperatures, but frost will damage the plant’s foliage. If the temperatures drop below 20°F, this can kill your plant. If you grow it indoors, you want to make a point to protect the plant from airflow or drafts from the air conditioning or heating vents. These things can cause a huge swing in the temperature, and this can damage your plant.

Water

Although you will get some drought tolerance with this plant, they like to have a consistently moist soil around the roots. You should water it whenever the soil feels like it’s too dry when you touch it, but make sure you don’t overwater it until the soil gets soggy. During the winter, you can cut back on your watering since it’s not actively growing at this point. Resume your watering schedule when the temperatures heat up again in the spring.

How to Grow a Sago Palm Tree Outdoors

If your idea tends more to growing sago palms outdoors, then there are a few care tips to be aware of. Consider it a tree, not an outdoor plant or shrub, since it will get larger and larger as the years progress.

Cold Hardiness Zones

Outdoors, growing sago palms works if you live in zones 9 to 11.  It can tolerate fairly low temperatures as long as there are no prolonged freezes.

Spacing of Sago Palms

Sago palm height outdoors can grow to 10 feet, so think carefully about the eventual size when you plant them.  It takes about 8 years for the plant to reach a mature size and even longer to become fully mature.

Don’t plant the tree too close to the house so that the large fronds have room to spread out and grow to their limit.

Sunlight needs for Sagos outdoors

Choose a spot for your sago palm tree that gets good morning sun but filtered afternoon sun since the fronds are likely to burn if they get too much intense sunlight.

Be sure the soil drains well

Choose well draining soil and add organic matter or compost regularly to the soil. Water well when the plant first starts growing outdoors, but once established sago palms only require limited watering during the driest spells.

Fertilizing Sagos outdoors

A slow release fertilizer once a year, in the spring, is all that is needed to keep your sago palm tree growing well if you use commercial fertilizers.

Adding compost or other organic matter is also a great idea for sago palms grow outside if you like to use more natural methods of fertilizing.

Sago Palm Pups

Sago palms have pups.  A pup is what you call the offshoots of the sago palm.

They can pop up very quickly once the weather warms up. I prefer to remove the pups from the sago palm because I like the way it looks.  I also wanted my sago palms to grow up rather than wide. This is a personal preference. It does not hurt or help the sago palm plants to leave the pups.

3 The pups on the sago palm
This sago palm has several pups growing out at the bottom.   

If you decide to remove the pups you need to dig around the pup so that you can keep the roots intact.  You dig about 3-6 inches down. How large the pup determines how long the roots will be. The bigger the pup the longer the roots.  You use a sharp tool to slice the pup from the tree. Sago palms can be male or female and both produce pups.

4 Separating pup from sago palm
The trencher shovel works the best for me so I can get the tip of the shovel right next to the Sago palm and make a clean slice to remove the pup.  

I found after a lot of trial and error that a trencher shovel works very well. I like this shovel because I am small and can easily use it and use my feet and legs for more leverage and strength.   I can use my foot too angle the trencher shovel correctly to cause the least amount of damage to the original sago palm.

Male and Female

My sago palms have not produced seeds yet.  So I am not sure if they are male or female.  The sago palm is dioecious meaning having the male and female reproductive organs in separate individuals. Males produce a cone-like seed pod and females produce a large round mass with seeds inside.  These structures grow on the very top of the trunk. In order to fertilize the female seeds, there needs to be a male sago palm present.

5 Potted sago palmsThese are some of the pups that I put in pots.  These are pictured in the sun, but you will want them in a spot with more shade for the first month or two of growing.  

You do not have to replant the pups.  You can give them away or put them in a pretty pot and give to your neighbor or child’s teacher as a unique present.  They are good indoor plants if you do not overwater and keep near a window.

When you pot the sago palms you need a  mixture of 50% potting soil, 20% compost manure, 10% peat moss, 10% sand and 10% perlite.  This is a dry mixture because that is what the sago palm likes to live in. You do need to water them well right after you put them in the pots and keep them in an area that gets some sun but not all day sun.  At first, the sago palm pup will need more shade than sun. In about a month the pup will be able to tolerate the full sun. It just needs some time to adjust after the trauma of the removal and transplant.

Sago Palm Care: Pruning The Fronds

Fronds grow out of the trunk every year.  Trimming the fronds keeps your plant healthy and aesthetically pleasing.  You need to get right up under the lowest layer of fronds and cut as close as you can get to the trunk.  Every part of the sago palm is strong and rough to the touch. Sago palms are prickly because they have needles all over the plant.  I like to use Corona classic cut pruning shears because they are tough and durable.  I wipe them after each use with a rag and they last for many years.  

When you prune the fronds you need to protect your whole body and take care.  You need to wear pants, a long-sleeved shirt and I wear long gloves that go all the way up my arms.  The sago palm has needles all over the fronds and the trunk.  Every part of the sago palm is rough to the touch. The needles on the plant can puncture the skin and cause irritation.  I have even got a bit of the sago palm needle in my finger, somewhat like a splinter and it made my finger puff up. Once I removed it I felt much better.  Sago palms are poisonous if ingested.

6 How to cut a frond with cutters
You need to get as close as you can to the trunk of the sago palm plant 
when pruning the fronds.

Sago palm plants do not require a lot of maintenance. I make sure the fronds are trimmed in the early spring.  I also take off the pups in early spring. You need to make sure the weather is going to stay consistent and no low temperatures at night when removing parts from the plant.  They are very hearty but when you do remove parts of the plant it needs good weather and no more trauma due to weather conditions to fully recover and continue to thrive. You do not need to fertilize the soil.  The only time I do add to the soil is when I have removed the pups and there may be a spot where some soil needs to be refilled. I add a small mixture of manure and compost to enrich the soil.

7 Fronds just trimmed on sago palm
This is a freshly trimmed sago palm all set to thrive and grow more gorgeous for the remainder of the spring and summer!

Is Sago Palm Toxic?

Unfortunately, every part of this plant is toxic should animals or humans ingest it. However, the seeds or nuts are the most toxic part of the plant. The toxin is called cycasin, and it will attack your liver to cause a huge range of symptoms. If you have pets or small children, keep this plant well away from areas they can reach to prevent accidents.

Poisoning Symptoms with the Sago Palm

If you want some common symptoms that span both animals and humans from ingesting this plant, they include vomiting, drooling, lethargy, abdominal pain, and death. You should seek medical attention immediately if you think someone has ingested this plant, because even a very small amount can cause irreversible liver damage.

Additional Sago Palm Species

Did you know that there are other plants that use the common name of sago palm? The Cycas revoluta is one of the most popular cultivars available, and other species include but are not limited to:

  • Queen Sago (Cycas rumphii) – You’ll get a more shrub-like appearance with this plant than a traditional tree. However, it can get up to 15-feet tall at full maturity with a very thick growth habit.
  • Queen Sago Palm (Cycas circinalis) – This is a tree-like plant that can easily reach up to 10-feet tall at full maturity. It is native to India, and it can thrive in hot conditions.
  • True Sago Palm (Metroxylon sagu) – This is actually a true palm plant that is part of the same botanical family that has other popular types of palm trees.

Growing Sago Plants in Containers

These plants work well for container gardens because they do best in three to five-gallon containers. They’ll lend a wonderful tropical look to your deck, patio, or to a brightly-lit corner of your home. Growing this medium plant in a container can cause the growth to go even slower, and it’s a slow-grower to begin with. However, this is a nice aspect if you want to keep it as a houseplant. In Japan where the plant is native, people treat it like a bonsai due to the slow growth when it gets root bound from being in containers.

This plant will usually only grow an inch or two a year at the most, but the growth rate will vary depending on the growing practices and the climate. You should put them in a well-draining soil that is very similar to cactus potting soil, and each container should have several drainage holes. Since they’re hardy in zones 8 to 11, you can keep it inside or move it outside and back inside as the weather permits.

5 Container Sago Palm
Festive Sago Palm by Jenni Konrad / CC BY-NC 2.0 You can control the growth rate of your plant by keeping it in a container. The roots can get pot bound and slow the growth even more. 

How to Get Flowering-Size Sago Plants

Generally, the only time this plant will flower is when you grow it in the ground. They don’t bloom until they reach between 15 to 20 years old for the first time, and the trunk will be between 10 to 14-inches wide. By this time, the leaves will have a six-foot spread. No matter which type of sago palm you have, they have a single set of leaves every year. However, they typically won’t produce leaves if they’re going to have flowers.

The plant also won’t flower each year even when they reach 15 to 20 years old. They’ll produce a cone every two or three years instead. If you want seeds, your female and male plants have to bloom at the same time. The female cones have a slightly fluffy texture with a dome shape, and the male cones produce pollen and have a taller profile.

Specimen Sago Plants

In order for your plant to be a specimen, it has to be fully mature. This can take up to 50 years, and it’ll get between 10 and 12-feet tall with a 10 or 12-foot spread. The plant can be single-trunked, or it can develop multiple branches as it ages. This can make it look more like shrubbery. They can live to be over 100 years old under the correct conditions.

Propagating Sago Palm by Division

You’ll typically propagate this plant through seeds. However, you should be aware that this process can be both ineffective and time-consuming. This is why many people won’t even attempt it. Instead, you can propagate this plant using division. If you grow your plant under ideal conditions, it can send up small clusters of brand new plants all around the base of the main plant.

You can remove these baby plants from the main plant by cutting them off at the trunk with a pair of scissors or a sharp knife. You want to leave as many roots attached to each baby plant as possible. Then, put your cuttings into the shade for a few days to let the cut heal. Once it does, you can pot them in the sail well-draining, gritty soil that the parent plant is in.

Potting and Repotting Sago Palm

Since this plant has such a slow growth habit to it, you should only need to repot it every three years. It is a good idea to gently remove the plant from the current pot each spring and swap out the soil with fresh to ensure that it keeps growing at a healthy rate. You should use a soil-based potting mix that you amended with peat moss or sand to keep it happy.

Common Pests and Diseases

Luckily, there aren’t any serious diseases or pests with this plant. Spider mites or scale can get problematic for it though. Keep an eye out for discoloration or damage on the foliage, and bugs moving among your plant’s fronds. You should use a natural insecticide before you try more harsh chemical-laced options, and the plant should have good airflow and humidity.

Sago Palm Quick Facts

There are a lot of small facts and tidbits that it’s good to know about this plant. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to care for it.

  • Plants are very slow-growing, and it can take up to 50 years to reach full maturity
  • All parts of this plant are poisonous to cats, dogs, and humans, but the seeds are the most poisonous part
  • Female plants can get 8-feet wide by 15-feet tall
  • Male plats can get 8-feet wide by 8-feet tall
  • The starch found in the trunk of the sago palm is a staple food for a lot of Pacific Islanders, but they process the pulp carefully to get all of the toxins out
  • Both male and female plants produce sucker plants or pups around the plant’s base. You can remove them and plant them elsewhere.
  • This plant works very well in containers
  • Most plants will never flower, but they can produce cone-like, large structure at the 15-year mark

How to Care for a Sick Sago Palm

If you noticed that your plant has yellowing and you figured out the root cause, you’ll want to know how to treat this sick plant. If the plant has a nutritional deficiency, you can give it a fertilizer treatment once a month. For the healthy maintenance of this plant, applying a balanced fertilizer regularly is key.

Any plant that has a scale infestation is also treatable. You can try to hand pick them off if you see them on your plant to get rid of them. If your plant has issues due to poor drainage or improper planting, you’ll want to repot it as soon as you can in a suitable soil. It shouldn’t be too deep, and there should be plenty of drainage holes in the pot.

Frequently Asked Questions

6 Sago Palm FAQs
Sago Palm by Kari Nousiainen / CC BY-NC 2.0 When it comes to these plants, it’s common for people new to growing them to have questions. The more you ask, the better time you’ll have keeping it alive and healthy. 

1. Are Sago Palms a slow growing plant?

Yes, this is one plant that will grow extremely slowly. If you grow them indoors, a plant that is two-years old will fit into a five-inch pot. Since the roots get pot bound, this can also slow down the normal growth habit. Outdoors, it can take up to 50 years for the plant to reach 10 to 12-feet tall. You should try another species if you want something that grows quickly.

2. Which soil does the sago palm like best?

Ideally, this plant likes very well-draining but rich soil. Sandy and clay-based soil will not give you a healthy plant. You can add a lot of compost to the foot of your plant once or twice a year to help enrich it and encourage good drainage. Indoors, your ideal soil mixture is regular potting soil that you amend with peat moss, sand, or pumice to make it gritty.

3. Where can you grow Sago Palms outdoors?

To grow this plant outside and have it do well, you’ll have to be in planting zones 9 or 10. They can withstand a very brief cold snap where it falls below 20°F, but it’ll die if it lasts for more than a day or two. They grow best in the warmest parts of the United States like in California or Southern Florida.

4. Is it a problem if your Sago Palm has yellow leaves? 

At some point, most of these plants will develop yellow leaves. This is normal if the plant is lacking nutrients. Older leaves will start to turn yellow and then brown, but it’s not a huge worry. However, if your plant has new fronds that are turning yellow, it could be a sign that you need to boost the nutrients by fertilizing it.

5. How much will a Sago Palm cost?

The prices will depend on the size of the plant. If you buy a small indoor version, this is easily affordable. However, if you want to buy a larger version of the plant, you could easily pay hundreds for it since it grows so slowly.

Bottom Line

The Sago Palm plant can easily add a touch of the tropics to your home, and they’re a very slow-growing species that is relatively low-maintenance. You can use this guide to see whether or not this would be a good addition to your home.

Sago Palm 1 Sago Palm 2

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