The sago palm, also known as cycas revoluta, is a classic tropical-looking stunner that makes a striking addition to any houseplant collection. Learn all the sago palm care tips you need to help this stunning plant thrive!
How do you care for a sago palm?
Hey all! Today I am writing about a plant I don’t actually own. I know that breaks one of my big rules—that I always write about plants that I have personally cared for. However, as you’ll learn in this post, I have a good reason for not owning this plant.
My mother, however, does own a sago palm. And I admire it every single time I go over to her house! It’s so beautiful and is seriously MASSIVE now! So I wanted to research and write about this one.
What is a sago palm plant?
A sago palm—also known as cycas revoluta, Japanese sago palm, sago cycad, and more—is a species of gymnosperm in the Cycadaceae family (aka Cycads). There are a few other types of sago palms, including cycas rumphii and cycas circinalis.
Cycads are one of the oldest plant families still in existence today—hundreds of millions of years old.
Gymnosperms also include conifers, which are woody plants like evergreens—pine, spruce, fir, and cedar trees, for example. Gymnosperms are used to make lumber, obviously. And they are also used to make paper, resin, soap, varnish, nail polish, perfumes, and more. Pretty cool.
And when you look at the sago palm, you’ll realize that it isn’t actually a true palm at all! It looks a lot like the evergreen trees you might see in a local forest when you take a closer peek.
The sago-palm-not-palm-tree hails from southern Japan, including the Ryukyu islands. And it is one of several species of plants used to produce sago, which is a starch extracted from the spongy core tissue of some tropical palm stems.
What does a cycas revoluta look like?
That’s right—it’s not a palm. It just looks kind of like one because the leaves grow up and out from the trunk, much like a traditional palm tree.
Sago palm plants have thick, highly textured trunks that are several inches wide. As the plant ages, the trunks grow taller.
A palm-like pattern of leaves emerge from the top of the trunk, but in mature sago palms, trunks can branch many times. This creates several different “crowns” of palm-like leaves.
The leaves are a spiky, glossy dark green that grow out in a rosette pattern that reminds me a lot of how the ponytail palm grows from its beefy trunk. The crowns of leaves can grow quite large—several feet, in fact.
As the leaves grow, you’ll also notice that some develop protective spikes like a cactus would. So, between the sharp, pointy leaves and the barbs they eventually sprout, this is not a plant you’d want to fall into. (One reason I don’t have one: small, clumsy child.)
Is sago palm a good houseplant?
In the right home, the sago palm also makes a lovely houseplant! In fact, because the sago palm isn’t frost tolerant, you’ll probably need to grow it indoors yearround. More on that when we talk about the ideal temperature for this plant.
But while the sago palm is a cool plant with a striking appearance, it isn’t something I’m willing to have in my home. Why is that, you ask, when I’m a hoarder of seemingly any and all plants? Well, it’s because it’s very toxic.
Sago palm plants & toxicity
I have a lot of plants that could be considered mildly toxic to humans and animals. That’s because my daughter is old enough to understand they aren’t lettuce, and I am able to keep most plants up and away from my kitties.
I have two cats, and one isn’t interested at all in plants. The other cat likes really leafy plants. So I’m generally fine with plants that have more structure—he doesn’t bug them at all.
But despite the fact that sago palms aren’t leafy and probably wouldn’t pique my Henry cat’s attention, I still don’t risk it as a plant in my home.
According to the ASPCA, the sago palm’s toxic principle is cycasin, which is a carcinogenic and neurotoxic glucoside found in cycads. Ingesting it can cause vomiting, melena, icterus (jaundice), increased thirst, hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, bruising, coagulopathy, liver damage, liver failure, and death.
All parts of the plant are toxic, and the seeds contain the highest levels of cycasin. Nature isn’t always pretty—that’s the moral of this story. But if you don’t have any concerns about anyone or anything in your home ingesting any part of a sago palm, it is TOTALLY safe to have in your home.
Are sago palms poisonous to touch?
I have not found anything credible online that suggests touching any part of a sago palm can be toxic or have harmful effects. That’s because ingesting parts of the sago palm are what makes it toxic.
However, if you are pruning or repotting the plant, I recommend wearing gloves and washing your hands thoroughly afterward. Also beware of the fact that the leaves are sharp—even moreso when they develop barbs like a cactus.
Sago palm care & lighting needs
So if you do choose to get a sago palm, let’s talk about caring for it! Sago palms do best in bright, indirect light. That said, my parents have their MASSIVE sago palm in harsh, direct sun every day.
It’s a very mature plant and does show some signs of scorching. However, it seems to have adapted well to this light level. (They drag it into a pretty dark shop in the winter, which likely leads it to go dormant.)
In your home, you’ll want to choose a bright window. It can withstand slightly lower light levels, but it will grow slower than its already very slow growth rate.
How often do you water sago palms?
When it comes to water and sago palm care, think of it like it’s a succulent or a cactus. They are very sensitive to overwatering. You can let the plant’s soil dry out almost completely before watering it again.
My parents have their large sago palm in a huge planter. And they mostly let mother nature do her thing as far as watering it goes in the spring, summer, and early fall. The plant needs barely any water through the winter if it is dormant.
Choose a soil that you’d use for a succulent. Any cactus or succulent soil will do the trick. You can also mix in horticultural grit and perlite to a soil mix to give it that succulent-soil-like feel. (See my post on how to make your own succulent soil, too!)
Using a sandy, well-draining soil will help ensure that no water sits around the plant’s root system. This will lead to rot. The sago palm will take what it needs and pass the rest through the drainage holes, storing water in its reserves.
What is the best pot for a sago palm?
Because the sago palm is so prone to overwatering, a terracotta pot is a great choice. Terracotta is incredibly absorbent, and it will help regulate moisture levels in the plant’s soil.
I love using terracotta for many of my hoya plants for that reason. Keep in mind that if your terracotta pot is glazed or sealed, it will not help with moisture regulation because the clay will no longer be absorbent.
How fast does a sago palm grow?
Sago palms are extremely slow growers, which is another reason why I am so impressed by the one my parents have! They rarely need to be repotted, even in ideal growing conditions.
My mom said she doesn’t even remember the last time they repotted their sago palm. That’s probably a good thing, because repotting it will probably be a beast of a task.
How tall does a sago palm get?
A sago palm can grow up to 10 feet wide and tall…but remember, that is in its native habitat. As a houseplant, it almost certainly will not reach that size.
Because my parents drag theirs outdoors for the spring and summer, it has grown beautifully. It is now about 6 feet tall and about 4 feet wide if you can believe it.
Can you keep sago palm small?
It’s difficult to prune the plant too much to control its size. THat’s because of the way the leaves grow out in rosette-style patterns. However, because sago palm plants are so slow growing, you can buy a small plant and expect it to stay small for a long time.
And since I mentioned pruning—the sago palm doesn’t require much of it. This helps streamline the sago palm care routine. If you notice leaves that have browned completely, you can prune them off.
However, the plant is pretty low maintenance and shouldn’t experience many dying leaves if it is happy. My mom said she doesn’t really prune hers at all.
Should I cut yellow leaves off of a sago palm?
If you notice yellow leaves on your sago palm, you may be tempted to cut them off. I am always so tempted to cut off yellowing, dying leaves on all of my plants! And I often do.
But the best thing to do is to wait for the leaf to die off completely before cutting it off. If you cut it off too early, you are interrupting the death “process.” Try to hold off as long as you can until it completely dies!
Sago palm care: Temperature & humidity needs
These plants are funny with their temperature needs. While they like warm temperatures (70s, 80s, and even 90s Fahrenheit), they also can make it out of a cold snap or two alive.
That means that they will do fine in most normal household temperature ranges. But if you have your sago palm outside for the spring and summer as my parents do, you’ll want to bring it indoors.
The sago palm can last a bit longer outdoors than many of my other vacationing houseplants, though. While frost will likely damage the plant’s foliage, it can actually do fine with a few nightly temperature dips down into the 30s Fahrenheit.
I wouldn’t make a habit of it, though. The plant will surely go dormant in temperatures that low. And since you risk damaging it with frost, you’ll probably want to drag it indoors when the temperatures begin getting down into the low 50s or high 40s at night.
The sago palm also loves humidity! However, if you have it in a lower humidity environment, it will probably do just fine. It’s pretty tolerant and flexible when it comes to moisture in the air.
To fertilize or not to fertilize…
As with all houseplants, I don’t use chemical fertilizers. Not because I have something against them—just because it can be difficult to remember how much I should dilute it for my many plants.
And if you over fertilize, it doesn’t make the plant grow faster…it will just burn it! So I recommend using something like Liqui-Dirt concentrated fertilizer.
However, I do use a chemical fertilizer on my outdoor plants. Just something like Miracle-Gro diluted in the watering can. If I had a sago palm outdoors for the spring and summer, I would probably give it a drink of that fertilizer water, too. It won’t hurt your sago palm care routine to throw that in.
Like plant propagation? Check out my posts on How to Propagate Succulents From Leaves and Cuttings, my Hoya Carnosa Propagation Guide, and my Scindapsus Pictus Propagation Guide!
What do you do with sago palm pups?
Sago palm pups are the plant’s way of propagating itself. So, if you want to propagate your sago palm, the best course of action is to wait for pups to sprout and then separate those pups.
This process is a lot like propagating snake plants, which spread and sprout smaller pups around their base. The sago palm does the same thing. You can leave the pups on, or you can take them off to propagate.
Pop some gloves on. If you can remove a pup by hand, go ahead and do that. You probably won’t need to take the mother plant out of her pot even if you can’t pull the pup off by hand. Just dig a bit around the pup to try to sever it.
Use clean gardening shears or a knife to remove it. Then let it dry for a few days. (This is also like snake plant propagation—and prickly pear cactus pad propagation!) Try to take as much of its root system with you as possible (if there is any).
After a few days, you can plant the severed pup into a small pot with fresh succulent or cactus soil. Keep the soil moist for about a week, then back off to letting the soil dry out before watering again.
The pup will eventually root. But, remember—this is a slow grower. So that goes for propagation, too. It isn’t going to root super fast, so give it some time.
How can you tell if a sago palm is male or female?
I learned a new fact while researching for this post, too! There are male and female sago palms. But you probably won’t be able to tell on your sago palm as a houseplant.
That’s because mature sago palms “fruit” and bear cones. The male plants/cones produce pollen to fertilize the female plants/cones. The male cone is tall and slender, existing for 1 to 2 weeks. It grows slightly offset from the growing tip.
The female cones are short and fat—and they produce seeds. Unlike the male cones, the female cones last for months and take up most of the plant’s energy. The cones eventually produce grape-sized seeds.
Remember that the seeds of a sago palm are the most toxic. So if you do happen to have a plant that is producing seeds, make sure to cut the cone off and chuck it. It’s highly unlikely your plant will produce seeds, though.
As always, remember to wear gloves and wash your hands while handling any part of this plant. Better safe than sorry.