Combining the look of a fern with a short-trunked palm tree, the sago palm (Cycas revoluta) is a cycad -- an ancient primitive plant that doesn't flower but yields seeds in cones. Also called king sago, this slow-growing plant native to southern Japan is botanically considered a gymnosperm. It is a cousin to other cone-bearing plants such as pines, firs and spruces.
Sago palms produce reproductive structures called strobili or cones, similar in shape and form to pine cones, except significantly larger. Anytime during the warm months of the year, most often in late spring or early summer, a sago palm flattens its whorl of leaves and cones form at the trunklike stem tip. Plants are at least two decades old before producing their first cones.
Female and male cones develop on separate plants, a condition in botany referred to as dioecious. Female plants produce one large, cabbage-looking cone atop the cycad trunk. It looks golden-beige and fuzzy. The female cones comprise numerous long appendages called megasporophylls, each with two to six ovules. By contrast, male plants produce one to three narrow, elongated cones from the trunk tip. They feels waxy, look creamy white to yellow-beige as they shed pollen and smell like pineapple. A male cone is also accurately called the microsporophyll.
Like flowers, cones exist to produce seeds. The male and female cones on sago palms occur about the same time of year, allowing various tiny insects to transfer pollen from the male cones to the many megasporophylls in the female cone complex. Male cones drop off after shedding pollen, but fertilized ovules across the female cone persist and develop marble-sized, red, oval seeds with fleshy coat with an embryo inside each.
Disintegration of the Seed Cone
The female cones persist for at least two months, the time it takes for seeds to develop and ripen in the feathery scales of the megasporophylls. The female cones begin to dry and fall apart, releasing seeds. Seeds drop and roll across the ground just under the mother sago. By winter, all parts of the female cones disintegrate, leaving a rough-looking bare stump. A new flush of leaves emerge the next spring with the return of warmth or seasonal rains.
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