Is My Sago Palm (Cycad) Dead?

Sago palms or cycads are a popular landscape plant in the greater Houston area.

New leaves emerging at top of trunk.

There are several genera and about 200 species of plants referred to as cycads but the most common by far in our area is Cycas revoluta, which is commonly known as “sago palm”, even though it isn’t a true palm. These plants add a tropical look to the landscape and are generally considered cold hardy in our area. However, when temperatures dropped to 19 degrees (Houston IAH data) in mid January many plants were severely affected including sago palms, many of which lost all of their leaves. Residents removed the dead foliage leaving just a trunk, which in many cases has been very slow to regrow. As a result a number of people have contacted us at the Extension office asking whether their plant is dead or not.

Your sago is most likely fine, but is just taking its time putting out new growth. The terminal bud is semi protected inside the top end of the trunk and while the temperature was cold enough to destroy the leaves, the mid January freeze doesn’t seem to have been cold enough or for long enough to kill the terminal buds. Most sagos around town have begun to show new growth at the top of the trunk and the rest will most likely follow in turn. Many are sending out new offsets from the base, commonly referred to as “pups.” These can be pried away from the base of the trunk (to maintain a single-trunked plant for easier access and maintenance) and either discarded or potted up to start new plants.

Spent blooms on male plant and “pups” emerging at base.

Bloom at top of female plant.

Sagos are dioecious, meaning they have separate male and female plants. Many of these plants around the Houston area have “bloomed” this spring/summer, sending up either an elongated pollen structure (male plants), or producing a large rounded mass in the center (female plants). This has contributed to the delay in the emergence of new leaves, especially in the case of female plants that bloomed.

So be patient if you plant still looks like a shaggy, short totem pole in your landscape. It should start pushing out some new fronds soon!

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