Cycas Revoluta, or the Sago Palm, has a deceiving name. It is not a palm at all, but a cycad. Cycads have been around for millions of years. Ever since the Mesozoic Era. That means that Tyrannosaurus Rex may have used them as butt scratchers 200 million years ago. And they would have already been around for 50 million years just waiting for some sweet T. Rex butt scratchin’.
Let that sink in for a minute. The vastness of that time span. This is truly an ancient species and one that has recently become very popular as an ornamental plant. I see them all over Southern California, but they can grow almost anywhere in the US. They are very cold hardy for such a tropical species. All of the box stores carry them, all of the nurseries. However, in all my nursery and Home Depot trips, I have yet to see a single warning label about the high levels of toxins in every part of this plant. Not a one.
Any animal that eats any part of this plant is in serious trouble. Even humans. To a cat, or a dog, Sago seeds are a yummy treat. They can’t help but enjoy the crunchy nutty flavor. The thing is, after only 12 hours of ingestion, they have a 50-75% chance that they will be dead by the end of the day. Now, let that sink in.
This plant will attract your pets, and possibly your children, to nibble on them and will most likely kill them in the process, yet no one is putting any warning labels on them! Alarmed? Good, you should be. These suckers are everywhere too. Front lawns, in front of banks and schools, scattered all over Balboa Park, etc. All places where children and pets play and love to put things in their mouths.
Here’s what happens…
“Cycad sago is extremely poisonous to animals (including humans) if ingested. Pets are at particular risk, since they seem to find the plant very palatable.”
–Suspected cycad (Cycas revoluta) intoxication in dogs, Botha CJ, Naude TW, Swan GE, et al.| J S Afr Vet Assoc | 1991
“Clinical symptoms of ingestion will develop within 12 hours, and may include vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, seizures, and liver failure or hepatotoxicity characterized by icterus, cirrhosis, and ascites. The pet may appear bruised, have nose bleeds (epistaxis), melena (blood in the stool), hematochezia (bloody straining), and hemarthrosis (blood in the joints).“
–Muller-Esneault, Susan (2009). “Cycas Revoluta: The Sago Palm, or Cycad Toxicity”. Critterology.com.
“The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center estimates a fatality rate of 50 to 75% when ingestion of the sago palm is involved. The incidence of ingestion by pets has risen by over 200% in the last five years. If any quantity of the plant is ingested, a poison control center or doctor should be contacted immediately. Effects of ingestion can include permanent internal damage and death.”
–“Trouble in Paradise: Sago Palm” (Press release). ASPCA. 2008-07-16.
All parts of this plant are dangerous, but the seeds are the real monsters! They contain the highest levels of cycasin which causes gastrointestinal irritation and in high doses, liver failure. There’s also,
“Beta-methylamino L-alanine, a neurotoxic amino acid, and an unidentified toxin which has been observed to cause hindlimb paralysis in cattle.“
–Toxicology Brief: Cycad toxicosis in dogs, Hany Youssef| Veterinary Medicine | May 1, 2008 |
So this is all what I discovered after I bought my house and rescued my dog. You see, I have a very old Sago Palm in my backyard which I wanted to fertilize so I began doing some research in the plant. I quickly began to realize the danger and was torn between keeping an old specimen tree and keeping my dog alive. You see, the Sago is a very slow growing tree. It takes about 100 years to get up to its full potential. Based on the size of the mine, I estimate that it is around 35-40 years old. They are also worth quite a lot of money when they reach the size that mine was at so I didn’t want to just chop it down and throw it away. And, although it is a hard and sharp and blood drawing beast, I could not resign myself to remove it.
So, I sprinkled pepper at its base, surrounded it with a low willow fence and set to training Sasha to avoid it like the plague that it is. I took even further steps. My Sago looked very much like the one pictured above. They will often form multiple trunks when left un-pruned so there were fronds all over the place from decades of loose and carefree maintenance. You see, the plant not only propagates by poisonous seed, but also from “pups” that form around the trunk that look like this…
These pups will form brand new trunks if left to their own devices. Seeing as I have a female, this means a great multitude of seeds were scattered all over the ground around the tree. My first plan of attack was to remove all of the surrounding pups and have a single trunk tree that would look cleaner and also be a bit safer to my beasts. Removing them is relatively easy, barring the many cuts and stabs that you will receive, they pry off with a crowbar or large screwdriver. This also served to protect my ankles from brushing against the sharp pointy needles.
I decided once that was done, that I would give the tree a year to rest and bounce back. After all, I didn’t want to destroy my prize specimen tree, just keep her in check. I also wanted the Sago to put all of its energy into growing up, not out. If I ever do sell it, its height and the crown that matter, not the hot mess that it was turning into. No one wants a blood soaked beast that can’t easily be transplanted. In my youth, I was properly trained to be weary of such uncontrollable blood thirsty plants.
I felt slightly victorious, yet there was still a major issue. The female creates a massive flower on the top of its crown that is loaded with deadly seeds. And, yes, the flower will also cut you and laugh while you’re bleeding. I still had this eminent danger to contend with.
Then one day I began to notice the lower leaves turning yellow and then brown. My instinct was, “oh crap! I’ve killed it!” Not true at all. When the plant is ready to drop its seeds, it begins to send out new fronds out of the center of its crown. Then the older fronds die off and the new fronds push the seeds out to fall below. After reading that, I knew that this was quickly becoming a more and more dangerous situation! There would be seeds all over the place! And when would it ever end? I decided to take much more drastic preventative steps, and if the tree dies, then so be it! I will not risk the healthy of my sweet baby girl! I decided to completely defoliate everything but the new growth. Not something I would recommend for the health of the plant. You see, the tree re-absorbs all the energy in those yellowing fronds back into its trunk and roots. You should wait for the fronds to turn completely brown and shrivel up. I decided against that because seeds were already dropping.
So I set up a full on hazmat clean room situation. I placed blankets all around the base of the tree to catch any and all seeds and clippings. I busted out the shop vac to painstakingly remove every loose bit on the crown as I worked my way around the tree cutting the fronds off.
I estimate that I stabbed myself about 20 times that day. I cursed like a sailor the whole way through and the tree began taking on a more menacing form to me. “This tree is trying to kill me!” I recall thinking. In the photo above, you can see its evil minion pups which grew back in the last year since I originally removed the larger ones. I did save one of the larger pups and repotted it. It’s also in quarantine. You can also see the new fronds extending from the top of the crown. Also note the trunk itself. It’s riddled with the stems of older fronds all the way down to the ground. That’s decades of growth that hid many older seeds that I had to remove as well. Here’s the crown after my aggressive pruning…
With countless band-aids applied to riddled fingers, I sat back and looked at what I had just done. I began to notice even more seeds scattered around the trunk and when I tried to remove some of them, I got stabbed for the last time! Sasha was paying too close attention as well and I realized that the danger was still present. So I decided to go even further in my rage. In other words, I got medieval on its ass! I got out the machete.
I did something I usually don’t do, I attacked this poor tree without doing research as to whether or not it would be able to bounce back. I started with the new pups…CHOP! And then all of the sharp and ugly old stem cut offs…WHACK! I unleashed my mighty steel upon this tree as if it were a horde of zombies. Side note: I’d like to formerly coin a different collective noun for a group zombies. A moan of zombies! That’s copyrighted my friend! I digress.
When I finally came to, this is what had become of this ancient marvel.
An alien life form emerged from this cocoon of pain and blood. All of the leavings were double bagged and disposed of in a similar fashion to that of heroin needles. There was nothing more to be done but wait and see if the victim would survive this gruesome attack. And it did indeed survive. In spades!
I must admit, I am glad that it did bounce back. It would have broken my heart to have killed such an old and beautiful tree. Here it is today in all its glory.
The trunk is fully healed over from my mighty blade. It’s even relatively smooth to the touch now and I can literally return to my tree hugging habits! What’s more, when I pass by the tree now, it almost seems to bow a little bit in submission. She and I have reached an accord now that she realizes I am not playing around with my dogs life nor my nimble yet easily pricked fingers. In short, I rule this tree now! Even Sasha was impressed with my dedication and prowess. Although her self righteous indignation doesn’t show that sentiment in this photo. She’s impressed none the less.
One of my favorite readers (who is also my amazing girlfriend) recalled seeing a news report about this potentially dangerous plant that is simply perfect for this article! They even go around to many nurseries, including my favorites, and no one was owning up to the fact that this plant will kill your dog! It’s a sago palm conspiracy! Check out this video of the news report!