Prehistoric plant looks great all year-round

Designing landscaping and working with plants for many years has given me many insights into their special individual requirements and microclimate needs. 

The sago palm isn’t really a palm at all. It’s actually a Cycad from the family Cycadaceae. The plant grows at an extremely slow pace and can have brilliant dark green foliage. Photo by Kim Horner

Many plants look great for a short period of time and then go dormant during the fall and winter months.

Others flower nicely for a short period and then make a huge mess, dropping leaves or becoming drab and disappointing for the remaining part of the year, sometimes growing so quickly that they soon overpower the space that they have been planted in. This often ruins the design and requires additional cost to remedy.

So, being the low-maintenance kind of guy that I am, I have over the years found many plants that solve these issues and are tried and true in the respect that they can be counted on to be attractive for years. Many of these plants can provide color on a regular basis and most importantly, they can survive the onslaught of a homeowner desperately trying to love them to death with over or underwatering.

One of my favorite plants that fits this description is the sago palm. It really isn’t a palm at all. The sago is actually a Cycad from the family Cycadaceae. One of the most common and well-known sagos we see today in homes and commercial landscaping is called the Cycas revoluta.

Cycas refers to the genus or group of similar plants in the Cycad family and revoluta describes the exact species within this particular grouping focusing on the fact that the leaflets on each individual frond or branch (revolute) or curve back and under.

I love these beautiful plants because they grow at an extremely slow pace and have a finite reach with their individual branches. The foliage of this sago is usually a brilliant dark green and punctuates an otherwise boring landscape with dark shining foliage pleasing to the eye of the onlooker.

Most Cycads are similar in shape and color. There are two other Cycad families, the stangeriaceae and zamiaceae. Typically, these plants are characterized by stout and woody (ligneous) trunks that support a crown of large stiff evergreen leaves.

Cycads are gymnosperms, which means naked seeded. All Cycads are dioecious as well, meaning that they are either male or female. Gymnosperms develop their unfertilized seeds or ovules open to the air. This allows direct fertilization by pollination in contrast to angiosperms, which usually enclose their seeds using a more complex reproductive process.

Cycads have very specialized pollinators, usually a specific type of beetle. Botanical studies have found that these plants also work in a symbiotic relationship fixing nitrogen with a type of cyanobacterium living near and between the roots. These bluegreen algae produce a neurotoxin called BMAA that is eventually found in the tissues of the plant and primarily the seeds.

Because of this, tribal people who still utilize the starch obtained from certain varieties of these plants must grind and soak the seeds to remove the nerve toxins that may be present. In addition, bush meat from game living in the area may provide a health threat. Meat coming from animals foraging on cycad seeds or leaves will have traces of this toxin in their body fat. There is some indication that regular consumption of starch derived from cycads is a factor in the development of Lytico-Bodig disease, a neurological disease that exhibits the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and ALS.

Lytico-Bodig disease and its relation to cycasin ingestion is explored in Oliver Sacks’ 1997 book “Island of the Colourblind.” Cattle grazing in pastures containing cycads ingest the leaves and seeds and eventually develop the neurologic syndrome of cycad toxicosis known as the “Zamia Staggers.” Wow!

These plants can be can be found all over the world and are usually in greater numbers near the equator. They are very diverse in their microclimate needs as well. Some are salt tolerant (halophytes), while others survive in harsh semidesert climates and are known as xerophytic. Many love bog-like conditions rich in organic material or they can live on solid rock, some in both.

Today, these plants still exhibit their same prehistoric looks, dating to several hundred million years ago.

Kent Horner is a local landscape contractor and designer with 30 years of experience in all aspects of your garden. For information concerning your project or questions involving your surroundings, email him at


Log in with your credentials


Forgot your details?