Quickly, which common “palm” isn’t a palm?
If you said “sago palm”, you’d be correct. While there are other plants referred to as “palms” even though they’re not related to the true palms—cabbage palm (Cordyline australis) or ZZ palm (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) come to mind—the most common non-palm must be the sago palm (Cycas revoluta).
The sago palm, or king sago palm, is actually a cycad, a member of an ancient group of seed plants whose origin goes back more than 200 million years. They were especially abundant during the Jurassic period (from 208 to 144 million years ago), the Age of Reptiles that saw the rise of the dinosaurs. Some experts say that cycads are the oldest living plants on earth.
Cycads grow very slowly (as you will know from personal experience if you’ve ever had a sago palm) and can live very long—some up to 2,500 years. That’s why a great deal of patience is required if you buy a small plant. Usually, there is a flush of new leaves once a year, in ideal conditions (lots of heat, water and fertilizer) twice a year. Eventually, a trunk will begin to form from the bases of old leaves that have dried up and fallen off.
Our potted sago palm is now 12+ years old and it’s still only 3 ft. tall by 4 ft. across.
|Our own potted sago palm|
That’s tiny compared to the specimen I came across on Sunday when photographing the bamboo grove at Sacramento’s Capitol Park. This one has multiple trunks and is tall enough to allow adults to play hide-and-seek.
|Mature sago palm at Capitol Park in Sacramento. |
Notice the banana and bamboo groves on the left and in the back.
|Mature sago palm at Capitol Park in Sacramento|
I was excited to see that this particular sago palm was had cones. Like all cycads, sago palms are dioecious, meaning that there are female plants and male plants. The specimen at Capitol Park was clearly a male.
|Male sago palm|
Male plants produce a cone covered with scales under which the pollen is developing. When the pollen is “ripe,” the scales open, emitting a sweet odor to attract insects that will carry the pollen to a receptive female plant nearby. After the female cone has been pollinated, it will produce seeds, which are the size of a walnut when mature.
At Capitol Park, there was no female plant. However, I did photograph one at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, Australia on our last visit. The female cone is a slightly flattened sphere which opens up when ready to be pollinated and closes again after pollination. From the looks of the cone in the photo below, this one was either still immature, or it had already been pollinated.
If you’re now wondering whether your sago palm is a male or a female and how to tell them apart, I have to disappoint you. There is no way of knowing until the plant produces a cone. That doesn’t happen until it’s 15-20 years old. According to cycad expert Lynn McKamey of Rhapis Gardens, the plant must also be well established in the ground. She has never seen a potted specimen cone.
Around town I see a lot of sago palms planted in the ground, and I imagine many of them will produce seed cones in due time. I’ll be ready with my camera when that happens.
As for our specimen, I prefer to keep it in a large pot since it looks more impressive that way, at least while it’s still a juvenile.