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If you mainly associate palm trees with coconuts, it may surprise you to learn that there are many different species of palm. Many of them are harmless, and several bear fruit that is both nutritious and tasty.
The sago palm, however, is a palm tree look-alike that is poisonous to humans and animals alike. Contrary to appearance, it doesn’t produce berries, but the berry-like seeds of the sago palm, along with its leaves and bark, are highly toxic.
If you live in an area with lots of palm trees, want to grow a palm, or simply like eating palm fruits, it’s important to know more about the sago palm and how to differentiate it from true palm trees.
Sago Palm Facts
What Is a Sago Palm?
The name “sago palm” is actually misleading–sago palms are cycads and not related to palm trees at all (source). However, the sago palm’s evergreen foliage closely resembles the fern-like branches of palms, so they are often confused for true palms.
Sago palms are more like shrubs than trees, often only growing ten feet tall. Also like shrubs, sago palms have multiple trunks (source).
When sago palms bloom, their flowers have feathery petals and a nondescript color. Their seeds are large, just over an inch in diameter, and may be pale tan or reddish-brown.
Because the seeds are unusually large and because of their shape and color, people may naturally assume that they are berries. However, this is a misconception that can lead to danger for anyone who assumes they are safe to eat.
Where Do Sago Palms Grow?
Sago palms originated in Japan’s southern islands, and they can be found in many tropical and subtropical locations around the world. In the United States, sago palms can thrive in coastal states like Florida and Georgia (source).
Sago palms are hard to propagate, but their exotic appeal and smaller size make them a desirable choice for atria and interior landscapes. Some growers even grow them as houseplants.
Which Parts of the Sago Palm Are Poisonous?
Interestingly, the starch from the inner bark of the sago palm is edible–in certain circumstances. It must be prepared very precisely, and even then, in its native Japan, starch from sago palms was only harvested during famines (source). In other words, even when prepared correctly, sago palm starch is a last resort against starvation.
The raw bark along with leaves, seeds, flowers, and roots are highly toxic if eaten.
Sago palm seeds, which are easily mistaken for berries because of their size, color, and shape, contain the highest concentration of a poison called cycasin. When ingested, cycasin can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and even liver failure (source).
Cycasin isn’t the only toxin sago palms contain. They also carry the neurotoxic amino acid beta-methylamino L-alanine, also known as BMAA (source). BMAA can cause seizures, paralysis, and even death if a person consumes high enough quantities (source).
Ethno-botanists have even hypothesized that soldiers stationed in Guam during World War II developed Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotropic lateral sclerosis or ALS) as a result of eating sago palm seeds that weren’t processed correctly (source).
Can Cycasin Poisoning Be Treated?
The best way to treat cycasin poisoning is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Don’t eat leaves, seeds, or fruits from plants if you can’t be certain they are safe to eat.
If you believe you may have ingested sago palm parts, call poison control or see a doctor immediately.
Are Sago Palms Safe to Grow as an Ornamental Plant?
Sago palms are only dangerous when eaten. They can be grown ornamentally indoors or outdoors in a subtropical climate.
It is important to note, however, that sago palms are toxic to animals as well. Dogs especially seem to enjoy the smell and flavor of sago palms. If you have pets, do not plant sago palms (source).
True Palm Trees
If coconuts, dates, or palm oils are a regular part of your diet, don’t panic! Again, sago palms are not true palm trees; true palms don’t contain cycasin or BMAA.
There are dozens of varieties of palm trees. Some produce delicious fruit, while others can be grown ornamentally.
Coconut palms are the most recognizable and most important palm tree variety. Coconut palms are spread all throughout the tropical regions of the world, including the warmer coastal zones of the United States (source).
Coconut palms are vastly different from other types of trees because they can tolerate almost anything except cold. They can tolerate temporary droughts and floods and can even be re-established if they are uprooted by hurricanes. Special consideration needs to be taken when planting palm trees in compacted soil that doesn’t drain well.
For home gardening and landscaping, coconut palms are mostly ornamental. Commercially, however, coconut palms are an extremely lucrative commodity because they are incredibly versatile.
Coconut “meat” can be eaten fresh or dried. Coconut oil is extracted and sold for cosmetic and culinary purposes. Even the fibers on the husks of coconuts are useful.
You can plant coconut palms in containers or directly into the ground. They require full sun and approximately one inch of water per week (source).
Date palms are another popular and well-known palm tree variety. The dates they produce are delicious when eaten fresh or dried, and their foliage is more upright and fan-like than coconut palms’ foliage.
Date palms are also striking because of their height–50 feet or taller! Because of their height, date palms aren’t a good choice for home landscaping, since they are likely to block sunlight from other plants.
If you would like to try growing a date palm, consider the pygmy variety. Pygmy date palms grow well outdoors in zones 10A and south, but they will also do well in zone 9 if they are in a container that can be moved for the winter. Pygmy date palms only grow to about 12 feet, which makes them a much more manageable size for landscaping (source).
Saw palmetto is another great choice for growers who want to plant small palm varieties. In fact, it tends to look more like a shrub, growing only five to ten feet tall and four to ten feet wide (source).
Saw palmetto grows widely in the southeastern United States, even in salty coastal soils. Their flowers attract bees whose saw palmetto honey is highly desirable.
Researchers have become very interested in saw palmetto fruits in recent years. Saw palmettos produce small round fruits resembling berries that turn black as they mature in the late summer and early fall. Not only do these fruits provide nutrition for a variety of wildlife, but they may also have medicinal importance for people (source).
Some people claim that the extract from saw palmetto fruits have properties that can fight prostate cancer. There is currently no medical evidence supporting this statement; however, these claims have promoted so much interest in saw palmetto harvesting that some states now require harvesting permits in an effort to protect the plants from harm (source).
Saw palmettos are very low-maintenance once established. If you choose to plant one in the ground, make sure to allow plenty of room. Their stems have saw-like “teeth,” so avoid planting too close to sidewalks, swing sets, or other high-traffic areas.
Pindo palms are an attractive option for growers who live in slightly colder climates because they are cold hardy to about five degrees Fahrenheit (source).
You can plant pindo palms in containers or directly into the ground. They are relatively drought and shade tolerant as well, which gives growers some flexibility when choosing a planting site.
Pindo palms work well in lawns that have plenty of space for their fronds, which can grow up to six feet in length. At full maturity, pindo palms are between 15 and 25 feet tall.
Also known as “jelly palms,” pindo palms produce date-like fruits that can be enjoyed raw but are often used to make jelly. The “dates” look like light orange cherries and are a balance of sweet and tart.
The pejibaye palm, or peach palm, has two edible parts: its fruit and its stems. Pejibaye fruit grows in large clusters of drupes and is sweet and mealy. The soft core of pejibaye stems are known as hearts of palm and are often used as a vegetarian seafood substitute.
Pejibaye palms thrive best in regions that are hot and humid, but with care, they can adapt and thrive in subtropical zones as well. In cooler regions, pejibaye palms may take 10 to 12 years to produce fruit (source).
If you live in a subtropical zone like parts of Florida, for example, and you want to grow a pejibaye palm, be prepared to do quite a bit of maintenance. They require a good deal of pruning, and because they have long, sharp spikes, this means you will need protective gear to get the job done.
Many varieties of palm trees, including several not mentioned here, produce fruit that is delicious and beneficial. The danger is that sago palms, which closely resemble palm trees, are highly toxic and carcinogenic with no known treatment. If you can’t be sure whether the fruit came from a sago palm or a true palm, don’t take the risk!