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Growing Cycads Is An Exact Science

By Joseph Meyer

Commonly known as the Sago palm, the exotic-looking cycad is a remnant of the age of dinosaurs. Growing cycads is easy if you give them the right conditions. These slow-growing plants are found around the world in warm, arid areas. They are impressive in the garden or on your sun porch.

A common name for them is Sago palm. This plant has a woody stem that can grow entirely underground or several feet above it. They are usually three to five feet tall but may be as tall as ten. Their leaves form a rosette at the crown, as the side leaves fall off. Seed is produced in cones in female cycads; the male plant also has a cone but it produces pollen. Pollination is done by different species of beetle.

Scientists think there were hundreds of species of these primitive evergreens which are now extinct. However, several hundred species are still found in warm, dry regions in Australia, Africa, Mexico, Central America, China, Japan, and arid islands around the oceans. Some look more like tree ferns than palms.

This hardy evergreen prefers dry, rocky soil. It does well in a terra cotta pot as long as the drainage is excellent. The gardener should not let this plant dry out; the soil should be moist but never water-logged. The fleshy roots rot easily. The plant likes to be root-bound, so re-potting is seldom necessary. They exist in the wild with a symbiotic kind of algae in their root mass which takes nitrogen from the air.

In the garden, it's recommended that they be fertilized four times a year. There are special palm food mixtures that you can buy in southern garden centers. The fertilizer will contain magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus, all minerals that are plentiful in the dry, rocky soils of the cycad's native regions.

Some species of plants that come from very dry areas will produce a protective wax that slows evaporation from the leaves. This waxy coating, which can be rubbed off with the fingers, makes the leaves look blue. The color ranges from silvery-white to deeper blue, but even 'blue' plants will turn green in humid conditions. This is because the plant will stop producing the wax if it's not needed.

Inside, the plant should be given as much natural light as possible. They should not be close to a source of heat. A room, like a sun porch, with low humidity and a temperature in the 70 degree range is ideal. The potted plants can be kept outside year round in tropical or sub-tropical zones. Northern gardeners need to keep them indoors in the colder months.

If you want an attention-getting focal point for your garden or an exotic presence in your house, try one of the many cycads. Look for the blues in catalogs or online if you can give them a dry environment. If they are growing in the right conditions, these plants are easy to care for, long-lived, and interesting to have around.

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