Cycas, an alternative to palm trees

Two potted cycas, still small, on a windowsill.

The specific care that’s needed for a cycas, how and when it should be repotted and watered and diseases that infect it.

Core Cycas facts

NameCycas
Family – Cycadaceae
Type – indoor plant

Exposure – well-lit, full sun
Soil – soil mix
Foliage – evergreen

These are the answers to the many questions that can arise when one has the luck of owning a magnificent cycas.

Not quite a palm tree but still an amazing ornamental plant, cycas is very appealing.

Planting and repotting cycas

Cycas in pots or garden boxes

Cycas requires good soil mix that can be amended with ⅓ compost, if you’ve got any.

In order to enhance drainage, pour clay pebbles or small stones into the pot to form a layer at the bottom.
This will help ensure that roots won’t wallow in water, which could be fatal to it.

  • Set it up in a fair-sized pot filled with special indoor plant or green plant soil mix.
  • Although it may be necessary to repot it in spring every 2 or 3 years, when not repotting then go for regular topdressing which should also perfectly answer the growth medium needs of the plant.

Outdoor cycas

Just as might be done in pots, feel free to place a bed of gravel, small stones or clay pebbles to ensure proper drainage.

  • Atop this layer, you’ll be using a blend of soil mix, garden soil and sand.

Generally speaking, most cycas don’t tolerate the cold, except perhaps Cycas revoluta which stands strong in temperatures close to or just below freezing.

Placing indoor cycas at the right spot

Under our climates, cycas adapts well to living indoors in our homes and apartments, except for Cycas revoluta which quite appreciates cooler temperatures in winter.

  • It grows best when surrounding temperatures hold at around 70 to 72°F (20 to 22°C) and requires very good light, even direct sunlight.

Choose for it a place near a window facing to the South or West so that it would bathe in a good deal of both indirect light and sunlight.

If you live in a house that is quite dark, avoid purchasing Cycas because it won’t cope well with the lack of luminosity.

Watering and adding fertilizer

The watering of cycas is important because it should neither be too much nor too little. Finding the right balance is the key…

In spring and summer

This is usually the time of the year when cycas grows most.
Water regularly while letting the soil mix dry in the surface before watering again.

Watering must be regular but limited, in order to not suffocate the plant’s roots.
You might say that watering every 2 or 3 days is often needed.

  • Every two weeks, you can offer it some liquid fertilizer, taking great care to moisten the soil mix beforehand.

Starting in fall and then in winter

Start reducing the watering because the plant water needs begin to decrease.
Only when the soil is dry down to the first inch or so (a couple centimeters), water to moisten the entire soil mix clump again.

One could say that watering once every 15 days should be enough.
But this also depends on where your cycas is placed: if it is in full sun, its needs will surely be higher.

  • This season is also when to stop adding fertilizer, from October all the way to March and April.

Fertilizer for cycas

This plant needs much more nitrogen than it does phosphorus and potassium. In conventional fertilizers, this means the “N” ratio must be higher than that of the “P” and “K”. For example, an 18 – 8 – 8 or a 24 – 8 – 8 fertilizer is perfect. Typically, manure has lots of nitrogen, with that from birds and goats being the highest. There are other ways to increase nitrogen content though:

  • use lawn trimmings for mulch. This grassy mulch breaks down fast and releases lots of nitrogen.
  • coffee grounds (used) are also excellent. They have high nitrogen contents as well.
  • certain fermented tea fertilizers can be made from home, too. Nettle tea, for instance, has high nitrogen levels.
  • plant clover as a green mulch around your plant.

Lush cycas throwing out many new fronds

Diseases and parasites that attack cycas

Leaves are twisted

This is undoubtedly due to lack of light or excess water.

  • Find a more exposed location for it and reduce watering to match our recommendations above.

Leaves turn yellow

If the plant continues to produce new leaves, this is part of your cycas’s natural cycle. Trees, even evergreen trees, lose their leaves to renew them.

  • So you can simply let them dry up and fall off from the cycas, or cut them when they’ve finished drying up.
  • If no new shoots appear, however, and that your cycas looks pitiful, check on your watering and water drainage. Eventually, you might need to support the plant with liquid fertilizer every fortnight.

You should know that once a leaf turns yellow, be it due to pests, frost, or lack of nutrients, that same leaf won’t turn green again. You’ll have to cajole the plant into setting out new, healthy fronds!

Learn more about cycas

Japanese garden with outdoor cycasAlthough it may run contrary to popular belief, cycas isn’t a palm tree, but it does look very similar which is confusing.

  • The care it needs is often very close to that of a palm tree, except for fertilizer. It needs much more nitrogen.

All in one aesthetic, resilient and very easy to grow, this is one of the most appreciated and often-purchased indoor plants. Outdoors, it adds a timeless feature to the garden, slowly evolving. It is native to Japan, which makes it a perfect complement to any Japanese garden.

Its foliage is particularly elegant and unique, and its thick trunk brings a touch of exotic life to a living room, dining area, or any other room of the house that is well-lit.

Smart tip about cycas

Cycas is one of the plants that date back to the time of dinosaurs! Like the ZZ plant or the Ginkgo biloba tree, cycas leaves routinely appear in fossils that are over 60 million years old.

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Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Two cycas in pots by Flower Council Holland / the joy of plants
Leaves unfurling by Doug Beckers under © CC BY-SA 2.0
Japanese garden by J Brew under © CC BY-SA 2.0