The Sago Palm, though it resembles a palm, is not a palm at all. A member of the cycad genus, these “living fossils” dominated the terrain during the Mesozoic era over 150 million years ago. Native to Japan’s southern most islands, the Sago Palm has shiny dark-green leaves with a rigid midrib and glossy leaflets that curl along the edge. The trunk is thick and shaggy, much like a palm tree. Miniature Sago Palms make an intriguing and elegant Bonsai, indoors or outdoors.
Where to place your Bonsai depends on what species of Bonsai tree you have. The Sago Palm can be placed in a sunny window indoors, or outdoors in partial shade protected from the wind. Three or more hours of sunlight a day is best. The Palm is extremely hardy and can survive in temperatures ranging from 15° F. to 110° F. with special care at the extremes of the range. Move your outdoor Palm inside in the fall before the first frost. In the spring, when night temperatures no longer drop below 50° F. return the Bonsai to its outdoor spot.
The Sago Palm grows slowly, making it a great Bonsai. It will add a set of new leaves every 1-2 years in some conditions and up to three sets a year in ideal conditions. New leaves grow all at once around the trunk. They remain tender for several weeks, during which time the tree should be treated gently and receive good light. If the light is not directly overhead, turn the tree about a quarter of the way around each day so new leaves will not lean in one direction. Once the leaves have had a chance to harden, this is not necessary.
The more sunlight and warmth your Bonsai receives, the more often it will need water. More Bonsai die due to improper watering than any other cause. Check your Bonsai daily by sticking your finger into the soil. In warm weather, water your Sago Palm as soon as the top half-inch of soil becomes dry. Generally, this is about once a week. Keep soil moist, not soggy. In the winter, when temperatures are cooler, the tree may only need to be watered every few weeks. When the topsoil feels dry, water thoroughly and deeply. An old Bonsai watering trick is to place the entire pot in a sink of water an inch or two deep. Let the water absorb from the holes in the bottom of the pot. An inexpensive moisture meter takes the guesswork out of watering. We sell them.
Leaves want humidity to keep them green and healthy. Any time your tree is inside, the air is very dry. Mist often during the day. Avoid putting your Bonsai near a draft or vent, which dries out the foliage. A humidity tray is a great way to increase humidity. These shallow trays filled with small stones have water in the bottom of the tray. Make sure the water does not reach the bottom of the Bonsai pot. As the water evaporates, it creates a moister environment.
Fertilizing a Bonsai is essential to its health because nutrients in the soil are washed away with each watering. Fertilizer is like vitamins and minerals for a plant. Your Sago Palm can be fertilized 3-4 times per year. It is especially important to fertilize when new growth appears in the spring and, in late summer to bring your palm through cooler temperatures. Use an organic liquid fertilizer or a chemical fertilizer diluted to one half strength. Water your tree BEFORE fertilizing. DO NOT FERTILIZE A WEAK OR FRESHLY REPOTTED TREE! This will cause stress to the tree by burning the roots.
To keep a Bonsai miniature, it needs to be trimmed and pruned as new growth appears. Never remove all the new growth at one time. The Sago Palm grows very slowly so very little pruning is needed. Prune throughout the year by removing any yellow or brown leaves. Cut the leaf stalk near the Bonsai’s trunk or remove individual sections at the leaf’s midrib, preserving the remaining leaflets. Sit at eye level with your Bonsai tree and use Bonsai trimming shears. Your cuts should be smooth or slightly concave so the wound will heal quickly. If the cut surface is brown, add pruning paint to the surface.
Good wiring techniques are used to train Bonsai trees into different shapes and styles. The Sago Palm does not need training like some Bonsai. Regular pruning should be all that is needed to keep your Palm in shape.
A Bonsai should be repotted periodically to supply the plant with fresh soil. When the roots can be seen growing out the sides of the Bonsai container...it’s time. For most Bonsai this occurs every two years in early spring. The Sago Palm prefers well-drained, sandy soil that contains some organic matter. Do not fully enclose the roots in the soil. After repotting, water thoroughly. DO NOT FERTILIZE FOR 3-4 WEEKS.
Insects and Diseases:
Insects such as spider mites and scale are common Bonsai pests. Small moving pinpoints of red or brown on branch tips identify mites, severe infestations leave “spider webs on branch tips and yellow leaves all over the tree. Scale is identified by brown or black bumps on the branches. These bumps contain insects under a protective waxy shell. A very sticky secretion that discolors the branches may also be present.
You should inspect your tree several times a week to look for problems. These can be attacked with the use of insecticides and fungicides in the form of sprays, soapy rinses, or systemic poisons. Spraying your Bonsais once every month or two with a non-toxic insect spray should keep the tree clean and healthy. The plant should be treated or spraying in the morning or in the coolest part of the day to prevent leaf-burn. Soaps should be rinsed of the next day. DO NOT SPRAY WHEN SOIL IS DRY.