Common in Jurassic period, cycads are living fossils


By Kelly Stewart

Although it’s not a palm tree at all, the sago palm (Cycas revoluta) is a beautiful primitive plant that grows well here in La Jolla, requiring little water to thrive. A member of one of the oldest plant families on the planet, sago palms are in a group known as cycads. More closely related to conifers than they are to palms or ferns, which they superficially resemble, cycads were very common during the Jurassic period more than 200 million years ago.

Cycads were likely the main food source for herbivorous dinosaurs during this time. Today cycads are much more rare and in fact, many species are endangered in the wild. Several cycads are listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates or prohibits import or export of these plants.

Many sago palms are now propagated from seeds domestically. Each plant is either a male or a female, but you cannot tell them apart when they are small. Cycads take a long time to mature — up to 15 years — and only when the plants have produced a cone is the difference apparent.