Wandering through the yard recently, I had some surprises seeing what survived our strange winter. Some people persist in saying that we didn’t have a winter, since we didn’t have much rain. However, I spent too many evenings putting sheets on my citrus plants in containers to protect them from frost to agree with these naysayers.
We had many freezing or below-freezing nights and mornings this winter. Not unexpectedly, since they are known to be tender, I lost a container avocado tree that I had grown from seed. More unusually I lost my lion’s tail, leonotis leonurus, a perennial that had weathered many a winter here. My salvia mexicana “limelight” appears to be history as well.
Several plants that generally sail through our winters were damaged. My pineapple guava, feijoa sellowiana, and rosemary had both just been cut back to supply boughs for the Master Gardener Wreath Workshop when the freezes began. I suspect this made the plants more susceptible to the frost. My cheerful euryops pectinatus and my azaleas are all alive and even blooming, but were definitely injured.
In stark contrast, there is a plant that sits between my rosemary bush and the dead lion’s tail shrub. Not only is it uninjured, it is thriving and positively perky. This sago palm, cycas revoluta, is one of my biggest surprises this winter. It’s not often that something this tropical in appearance turns out to be such a survivor of harsh weather.
A sago palm is not in the palm family at all. It belongs to a group of cone-bearing plants, cycads, which are very ancient and are distant relatives of the conifers. Sago palms are originally from Japan. When young, the sago palm looks fernlike with its long, leathery, but airy leaves growing out from a central point in a rosette pattern.
These plants are very slow growers and over time the central growth point can lift up off the ground on a thick brown trunk. In the ground, they can hit more than 10 or 15 feet tall over a period of 50 to 100 years. Their fronds can be several feet long. In pots they tend to stay much smaller in size. These plants can even be grown as bonsai.
These primitive plants do not have flowers. There are separate male and female plants and they produce cones. The male cone produces spores, not pollen, which can be transferred to a female plant. The female cone, which is somewhat basketball-like in appearance, forms in the center of the plant. Once spores from the male plant reach the female cone, large red seeds will form. Apparently this is a pretty rare occurrence in container plants. The plants can also be grown from offshoots that form at the base of the mother plant.
The plants are very adaptable Sunset Western Garden Book says they can be grown in Zones 8-24 plus H1 and H2. They can tolerate high or low humidity. They can be grown in full sun or in partial shade, although they don’t appreciate being switched back and forth. The leaves will be a richer green if grown in partial shade.
They do require good drainage and if they don’t get it, they can develop root rot. Once established, they can be fairly drought-tolerant, despite their lush appearance. According to UC Davis IPM website, the main pest problems are scale, both cycad and oleander, and mealy bugs. They can suffer from mineral deficiencies, most particularly that of manganese.
So lush plants with low to moderate water needs, easily maintained, that can be grown in the ground or in containers; they are perfect, right? There are a few more things you need to know. The tips of the leaflets are sharp. There are also spines along the petiole of the leaf, the part that connects it back to the central area. These are not plants that should be placed along walkways. Put them where they can be seen, but not rubbed up against.
Even more importantly, all parts of the sago palm, cycas revoluta, are poisonous to pets and humans if eaten. The seeds contain the highest amount of toxin. Ingestion can lead to bleeding, liver failure, and convulsions. In looking at reports on the Internet, most of the reports involve dogs, and there is a high mortality rate. So be aware and be warned. However, in the proper setting, sago palms are beautiful, tough, and definitely survivors.
Karen Metz is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.