Newsletter Feature

 

THE PALM THAT ISN’T by Pat James

     Sago Palms (Cycas revoluta) are not palms, but members of the Cycadaceae family, one of the three families of the ancient Gymnosperms that appeared over 65 million years ago. They are known as Cycads, living fossils, which existed before dinosaurs, and were a common sight during the Jurassic Period. Sago Palms are related to the extinct seed ferns from which they evolved.

     Native to areas in southern Japan, a cycad can be stunted by size of pot used and is therefore popular as a bonsai plant. The Sago Palm is a popular decorative plant. Today they are seen in office or hotel lobbies and, although a sub-tropical plant, are part of botanical garden collections throughout the world. As a sub-tropical plant, potting is the logical choice for cooler regions. Although hardy and long-lived, they are a plant with major implications.

     Although they appear wispy and fern- like they are really a tree which can slowly reach about ten feet tall and be covered with needle sharp spines and a hard outer shell. Both male and female plants produce pups that need to be chopped off every year or two. Old spears need to be cut off every year after the plant produces a “flush” of new spines. All parts of the plant are poisonous. Safety glasses and heavy gloves are recommended for any trimming maintenance.

     Although a dangerous plant, its frothy long-lived beauty and hardiness make it highly desirable. It is not unusual for a potted Sago Palms to live hundreds of years.The Sago Palm needs sun and prefers quick draining soil in deep pots to accommodate roots. Plants should dry out before watering. Over-watering can cause rot and decay. They should be near a bright sun source preferring full or part day sun. It is easy to grow.

     The Cycas revoluta are poisonous to livestock, pets and people when ingested. Seeds contain the highest concentrations of toxin. However, the starchy pith has long been processed and used as food. When used as food, the palms are not allowed to mature to preserve the pith, and are cut down when about 15 years old. Stems are split and starch containing the pith is taken from stems and ground to powder. Powder is kneaded in water and strained to release starch in a trough where the starch settles. After several washings the starch is cooked. A single palm yields about 800 pounds of dry starch. The seed remains toxic, even after washing, and must be discarded. 

     Archeological analyses in southern subtropical China indicate sago palms were an important food source in China and southeast Asia around 5000 years ago before a slow transition to labor intensive rice farming. Still popular in this area, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, the starchy pith of sago palm is used as traditional food after washing thoroughly and being treated to remove toxins, This is an involved process dealing with serious, potentially lethal toxins.

     Major Sources:

Bergman, Phil, “The Sago Palm, Cycas Revoluta - Cold Hardy Large Cycad”, junglemusic.net.

Byres David “Sago Palms: Cycas revoluta, fscj.edu.

Cramelli, David, Editor. “Sago-Type Palms...Important Plant Food...”, PLOS One Journal.

Vengas, Sherry, “10 Reasons Not to Plant the Sago Palm”. dengarden.com.