Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 161 Cycas revoluta

Common Names: king sago, Japanese sago palm, funeral palm Family: Cycadaceae (cycad Family)
Image Gallery

a young Japanese sago
Japanese sago have larger, darker green leaves when grown in full shade like this individual. Jack planted this sago from a one-gallon container twelve years ago. In this time it has grown a trunk only 1 foot tall - this is a slow grower!

Description

This unique plant resembles a palm tree but is actually a cycad. These living fossils, members of the Cycadaceae family, dominated the landscape during the Mesozoic era over 150 million years ago. Today about 10 genera of cycads still survive. The most commonly grown is the Japanese sago, also called the sago palm (even though it isn't really a palm).

This very symmetrical plant supports a crown of shiny dark green leaves on a thick shaggy trunk that can grow to 10-12 ft (3-3.7 m) high. The plant is very slow growing requiring about 50 years to achieve this height. As the plant matures branching of the thick stem may occur which only adds to the interest and charm of this beauty. Japanese sago also tends to produce suckers at its base forming a large multi-stem clump over time.

the male reproductive structure of the Japanese sago
This is the male cone or reproductive structure of the Japanese sago, the pollen it produces fertilizes separate female plants.

The distinctive leaves grow 4-5 ft (1.2-1.5 m) in length and are about 9 in (22.9 cm) in width. Leaves are pinnate and are composed of a rigid midrib with glossy leaflets arranged in a plane along its length. These leaflets are revolute which means that they curl under along their edge - this attribute provides the plant's species name (C. revoluta). The sago is most attractive when the new leaves appear in late spring or early summer. They emerge as light green spikes, arranged in a circle around the perimeter of the trunk. They slowly uncoil growing to the ultimate length of the leaf. Then, in a graceful choreography, the individual leaflets unroll away from the midrib and the whole column of new leaves relaxes into a rosette that sits just above the existing crown of leaves.

In mature individuals the reproductive structures form at the center of the rosette. Sago plants are dioecious, meaning that each plant is either male or female. The male structure is a yellow rod shaped cone that grows 12-18 in (30.5-45.7 cm). Modified leaves form the female cone which is a globe shaped yellow structure in which scalelike leaves cover bright orange seeds that are about 1.5 in (3.8 cm) in diameter.

a female Japanese sago with single trunk
This single trunk female stands alone on a front lawn. Judging by the age of the neighborhood, I estimate that this plant is 40 to 50 years old!

Location

The sago palm, Cycas revoluta, is native to Japan's southern most islands. This is a subtropical area of high rainfall and warm temperatures. As a result, this beautiful plant is right at home in Florida and throughout the Gulf Coast.


Culture

Plant in sandy, fast draining soil, preferably with some organic matter. Also recommended is a light mulch of bark or leaf mold. Plants appreciate light feedings of balanced, slow release fertilizer granules or diluted liquid fertilizers. Strong fertilizers, fresh manure and the like are best avoided as they can damage the sago's coralloid roots (specialized structures that host blue-green algae that fix nitrogen from the air and make it available to the plant). Light: Bright conditions including full sun. Sago can also handle full shade with no ill effect (its leaves grown larger in the shade). Here in Florida it seems to be less susceptible to leaf spot disease when grown in semi-shaded conditions where it is more protected from environmental extremes. Moisture: Needs good drainage or it will rot. Sago is drought resistant when mature. Provide adequate moisture for good growth. Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 10. Many references indicate that sago is hardy only to Zone 9. I disagree. Sago is commonly used in north Florida and other Zone 8 regions. I have personally observed mature specimens surviving temperatures of 13°F (-10.5°C) without damage - the youngsters sustained leaf damage but survived. Propagation: Fresh seeds should be permitted to age for 2 or 3 months in a cool place before planting. Old, dry seeds should be soaked in water for 24 hours. Plant seeds in moist sand and keep warm. Germination should occur in 2 to 3 months. New plants can also be obtained by removing suckering offsets from the base of the trunks. Remove leaves and plant in moist, well drained soil. This technique is most successful when performed in the winter when plant is dormant (root growth is still active during this period).
Japanese sago clumps
This lovely lineup of luxuriant Japanese sago clumps lives in Tallahassee. Like the single trunk individual pictured above, these are also about 40 years old. I speculate that more shade and richer soil seems to produce more branching and offset production.

Usage

This is a wonderful plant for both indoor and outdoor use. It looks great in the shrub border or as an accent on an expanse of lawn or near the patio. Use in entryways or in rock and sand gardens. It mixes well with palms and combines well with border grass (Liriope muscari), podocarpus (Podocarpus macrophylla) and camellias (Camellia japonica). Sago is an excellent container plant for use outdoors and in the home. It has been a popular house plant in the west for over a century and in Japan for even longer. In Japan the sago is also used as a bonsai subject. Dwarfs of great value are produced by withholding moisture and packing the plant in sand. These often have very thin trunks or interesting deformities and are sometimes sold under the name Cycas nana.

Features

This is a very interesting plant that has been around since the time of the dinosaurs. It's unique shape and texture provide interest in both the landscape and indoors. The glossy metallic leaves are harvested and preserved by the Japanese who export them for use in flower arrangements and wreaths. My first encounter with sago was as an altar boy. After funeral masses we would carry the flower arrangements out of the church for disposal (one common name of this plant is Japanese funeral palm). I recall loudly arguing about whether the dark green leaves were real or fake. My buddies and I eventually concurred that they were real but "dipped in plastic and sprayed" and used them for "sword" fights. When years later after moving to Florida I encountered living sagos, I was impressed to see that the leaves are as "fake" looking when alive as they are in funeral arrangements. I now enjoy a bunch of them growing around my yard.

Japanese sago seeds
Mama Sago poses casually, a boa of Algerian ivy draped across one shoulder and several sago seeds spilling stylishly from her cone.

This is a very interesting plant that has been around since the time of the dinosaurs. It's unique shape and texture provide interest in both the landscape and indoors. The glossy metallic leaves are harvested and preserved by the Japanese who export them for use in flower arrangements and wreaths. My first encounter with sago was as an altar boy. After funeral masses we would carry the flower arrangements out of the church for disposal (one common name of this plant is Japanese funeral palm). I recall loudly arguing about whether the dark green leaves were real or fake. My buddies and I eventually concurred that they were real but "dipped in plastic and sprayed" and used them for "sword" fights. When years later after moving to Florida I encountered living sagos, I was impressed to see that the leaves are as "fake" looking when alive as they are in funeral arrangements. I now enjoy a bunch of them growing around my yard.

The trunks of many cycads, including the sago, are composed of a starchy tissue from which a carbohydrate source was obtained during times of famine in Japan. The plant is also used as a food source on some islands in the Western Pacific. Unfortunately it contains a neurotoxin that can produce paralysis and death if the flour is not properly prepared. Some medical researchers suspect that use of cycad starch is the cause of higher incidents of several diseases in areas where it is consumed.

Warning

Animals that graze on Cycas leaves may exhibit permanent neurological disorders. Cycas seed is sometimes suggested as a natural remedy for certain conditions - do not use it! All parts of this plant are toxic.

Steve Christman 7/27/97; updated 1/20/02, 2/10/04, 3/2/09



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Cycas species profiled on Floridata:


Cycas revoluta

( king sago, Japanese sago palm, funeral palm )

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