Metroxylon sagu

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Related Links
Extracting the pith of trunk of the sago palm, M. sagu, in South East Sulawesi, Indonesia. Sago still is a staple food of the local population.
© Robert Zwahlen

© Chris Gardiner
Sago thorns
© French B
Cultivated sago palm in Sarawak, East Malaysia.
© Johnson D.
Sago removing bark
© French B
Sago chopping
© French B

Local names:
Burmese (thagu-bin), Dutch (sagopalm), English (sago palm,true sago palm), Filipino (lumbia), French (palmier a sagou,sagoutier), German (Sagopalmeu,Sagopalme), Indonesian (kersula,kirai,lapia,ambulung,pohon rumbia), Italian (palma da sago,palma a sagu),

Metroxylon sagu is a palm tree, without leaf sheaths; boles have a diameter of 35-60 cm and reach a height of 6-16 m. Starch is stored in the central parenchyma of the bole. Under prolonged flooding conditions, it forms pneumatophores.

The true sago palm is a pinnate-leaved tree. Healthy palms carry about 24 leaves or fronds. Each month a new frond appears out of the growing point, and the oldest dies.

Sago palm is also hapaxanthic; each bole heralds the end of its life cycle by developing a huge branched terminal inflorescence with a large quantity of fruit. The trunk decays after the formation of the fruit and 1 or more suckers from the trunk take over.

The generic name is from the Greek ‘metro’ (the pith of the tree), and ‘xylon’ (wood), referring to the large amount of internal pith.


Occurring in the hot humid tropics of Southeast Asia and Oceania, sago palm dominates mainly in permanent or seasonal lowland freshwater swamps, preferably on mineral soils with a pH higher than 4.5. Ideally,  groundwater should be within 50 cm of the soil surface. Mixed with upland trees, it can also be found on dry soils, where it grows even taller.

Native range
Fiji, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Thailand

Tree management

Farmers plant relatively small and quick-maturing varieties on clay soils high in organic matter at 7 x 7 m, giving about 200 stumps/ha. In the 2nd year of trunk formation, about 100 suckers/ha (which developed in the 1st year) should be selected for starch production. Harvesting for maximum starch per trunk should be timed to coincide with the onset of fruit formation. Once the tree is planted, it produces a regular succession of suckers from the lowest part of the trunk, forming a cluster of various stages of development. Suckering is regulated by pruning, so that each cluster palm produces 1 bole every 18 months.

The species has been classified as recalcitrant. If suckers are not planted directly, they are kept for 2-3 months in a well-shaded nursery. This is also done if suckers are to be transported any distance.

Occurring in the hot humid tropics of Southeast Asia and Oceania, sago palm dominates mainly in permanent or seasonal lowland freshwater swamps, preferably on mineral soils with a pH higher than 4.5. Ideally,  groundwater should be within 50 cm of the soil surface. Mixed with upland trees, it can also be found on dry soils, where it grows even taller.

M. sagu propagates itself both vegetatively and sexually. Propagation of cultivated stands occurs only vegetatively, through suckers, mostly growing from the lowest leaf axils, because the palm is harvested before flowering. The suckers have the advantage of being readily available and of producing homogeneous offspring, which allows selection. The palm also propagates itself sexually at the end of its life cycle. The inflorescence may contain up to 850 000 fruits. The seed germinates only under wet conditions. A rosette grows from the seed, out of which a new bole and new suckers may be formed.

Sago palm has been planted in buffer zones as a method of rehabilitating degraded lands, for instance the coastal plains of Indonesia where thousands of hectares of land had been abandoned.

 The boles of sago palm have always been used to obtain starch as a staple food for humans. Hot water is poured over the slightly sour wet starch and stirred. The resulting gluelike mass is eaten with fish and vegetable dishes, for example. The growing point and the young leaves around it may be used as a vegetable, the palm heart or cabbage. Grubs, especially of Rhynchosporus spp., may grow in decaying trunks, and sago growers consider them a delicacy.

Fodder: Ground pith is sometimes used as an animal feed, especially for pigs, and when dried, for horses and chickens.

Dextrose sugar extract from sago palm starch can be processed to yield power ethanol. The cortex of the trunk is also used for firing in paper mills. The bark may be used as a domestic fuel after drying.

Fibre: Processing of the pith to yield starch produces a fibre. The leaves also yield a fibre, which may be used for mats.

Soil improver: The waste from pith processing is used as a fertilizer.