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Sagos may look like short palm trees, but they're not.

Sagos may look like short palm trees, but they're not.

Hey! My sago is not a palm

by Ginny Stibolt

Sagos (Cycas revoluta) seem to be planted in everyone's yard around here. This popular ornamental creates a dramatic forest green tropical accent and a bold contrast in texture once it's big enough. Although sagos grow slowly, they're easy to care for, and have few pests. 

I found one growing in the edge of a wooded area where the previous owner had thrown it away thinking that it was dead, I guess. I dragged it out and planted it near the fence. With its three little fronds, it's not beautiful yet, but all I need is patience. It's been in the ground now for three months with no apparent change. 

But. the sago, although it looks like a short palm tree, is not a palm. It's a cycad imported from Japan. The cycads are gymnosperms. All seed-bearing plants are either gymnosperms or angiosperms. Gymnosperms are more primitive, lack flowers and reproduce by seeds borne naked on a bract most often in a cone. Angiosperms are more advanced, have true flowers and seeds enclosed in ovaries. There are many more angiosperms on the planet than gymnosperms. Other gymnosperms are ginkgoes and the conifers such as pines, firs and spruces. 

In doing the research on sagos, I found that there's an organization dedicated to cycads and their preservation - www.cycad.org. Who knew? I learned from their website that seeds take three months or more to germinate and that most sagos sold for home landscaping are produced asexually by separating pups from mature plants. 

a sago pup - photo by Stibolt
Sago pup needs to dry before planting.

One of our sagos had a pup, so I dug out the soil from that side of the plant and split the pup off with a shovel. If you do this, be sure to wear your leather gloves to protect yourself from the sharp fronds and make sure you're well rested because this is hard work. Here is a picture of the pup. The information I found said that fungus sometimes rots out the core, so I left the wound exposed for a week before I filled the soil and mulch back around it. This way the plant had a chance to dry out and form a healing coat to protect against fungal invasion. 

I let the pup dry out as well and stuck it into the ground. The hurricanes came and blew it over again and again, so I tied three stakes to it that stick deeper into the ground to stabilize it until it forms its own roots. (This is what you do with newly planted palms, as well. The palms don't have true roots and need the stakes to stabilize them, but that's another column.) The information stated that a rooting hormone could be used, but was probably not necessary. So we'll wait and see. More patience.

One other note on cyads: There are several species native to southern Florida that all share the common names of coontie, comptie, Seminole-bread and confusingly, sago. Two of the species are Zamia pumila and Zamia furfuracea. The fronds on these plants have only 15 to 30 paired leaflets while our garden sagos have more than 100 paired leaflets.

The Seminole Indians grated the thick stems and roots of the zamias, squeezed out the water and sifted the resulting flour into a gruel called sofkee, an important part of their diet. 

River of Grass cover

I read about this in River of Grass by Marjorie Stoneham Douglas, the classic book every Floridian should read. The beginning of this 50-year old book where she describes the Everglades' natural history is some of the most beautiful prose ever written about the natural world. The end of the book is a sad and bitter story dealing with man's attempted destruction of this unique environment. The 50-year edition includes an update on the state of The Everglades co-written by Douglas when she was 98 years old. If you'd like purchase your own copy, please link here

Douglas seemed to merge her description of cycads with arrowroot, (Maranta arundinacea) which was imported from the West Indies and used by the white settlers to produce flour in much the same way the native Floridians used the zamias. I don't find fault with her since she wrote it over 50 years ago and since the rest of the book is so valuable. Of course, I also found that Mitchner placed honeysuckle in the forests of Maryland hundreds of years before it was imported from Japan in his epic, Chesapeake. Ah yes, the curse of a botanist is never to just relax and enjoy a well-written book at face value, because the mind's eye is always on the lookout for those botanical gaffs. Yes, I know there is a native honeysuckle in Maryland, but that's not what he described. (Update: See my post One Native Plant = Three Habitat Benefits over on the Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens blog for more discussion on this topic.


Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t in planting zone 8/9. She's wrote, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," published by University Press of Florida that was released in 2009. Now she's written "Organic Methods for Growing Vegetables in Florida" with Melissa Contreras in Miami that was also published by University Press of Floridia in 2013. You may contact her or read more of her articles posted on her website: www.greengardeningmatters.com.

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