Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
September, 2011
Regional Report

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Sago palm is a cycad with whorls of bright green new growth that ages to deep green.

Cycads and Palms

Among the most beautiful signature landscape plants, palm trees and cycads are nearly ubiquitous in warm climates. It is a myth that they are carefree, and it is important to know what can challenge them.

Defining Cycads
Sago palm and other cycads are not palms, despite the confusion caused by that common name. Sago palm's botanic name is Cycas revoluta and it is a living example of the 200 different cycads recorded in every corner of the earth. Many, now extinct, are found in the fossil record only, while others remain nearly the same as when they shared the planet with dinosaurs. The ones that survive today are truly living fossils. Sago palms are the most popular of the genus today. They begin at ground level and slowly develop trunks that can eventually reach taller than your house. The new growth is bright green and curved, thus the specific name revoluta. When mature, the deep green sagos are stunning, 2 to 4 feet across, dense and bristled. Even young plants will produce offsets at the soil level or slightly below it, and mature sagos sport suckers along their trunks. Both can be used to propagate new plants and are often present in the fall.

Caring for Cycads and Palms
You can grow sago palm and small true palms indoors or outside. If palm fronds are damaged or broken, cut them off, regardless of season, but resist doing so with sago leaves. Sometimes these are cold damaged, which shows up about the same time new growth starts in spring. Leave that sago alone while the leaves are tender and until they are unfurled completely and begin to develop darker green shades. Do not repot or transplant during this time. Wait at least until early summer to take babies from the base or trunk.

Except for this caution, sago palms should make every list of easy-to-grow plants. They tolerate most soils and sun exposures but perform best in just less than full sun in soil that does not stay flooded. Pick your planting site carefully for both cycads and palms and avoid moving them, as their roots do not take change readily. Plant carefully to be sure the tree is growing at the same level or slightly higher than it was in its original pot. This placement will keep water from puddling at the base of the palm, which can lead to rotted spots and long term problems. Palms grow slowly and will need regular watering during dry summers to promote continued growth.

Fertilizing Palms and Cycads
It is unusual for me to suggest specific formulas for particular plant groups because it has been my experience that the vast majority will grow well in good soil with any complete fertilizer. Palms are the exception and do benefit from special plant foods made specifically for them. Palm fertilizer formulations are lower in phosphorus (such as 12-4-12), and contain small but important amounts of magnesium and other trace minerals.

Whether you grow a palm in a pot or a garden bed, spread the fertilizer over the soil under the entire canopy of the tree. This is especially important if the palm grows in a lawn, as it can deplete nutrients from the lawn as its roots spread near the soil surface. In fact, lawn fertilizer should not be used within 20 feet of a mature palm tree. Instead, use palm fertilizer there. Several fertilizer applications may be needed, depending on the kind of palm and where you live exactly, but the purpose of feeding palms is to keep new fronds forming steadily to replace those lost over time. Unless proper nutrition is consistently available during the growing season, palms will simply sit there. In many cases, the last dose of the year can be delivered now. Read up on your particular palms to decide if you should fertilize now or wait. Of course, where size restriction is desired, withholding fertilizer from palms is one way to accomplish that.

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