Joe Phelan

Garden detective

Published: Saturday, May. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6CALIFORNIA LIFE
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 19, 2013 - 10:50 am

Can you tell me the name of this plant? The Italian lady who gave it to me told me that "in the old country," they would tie it to the rafters in the house to keep mice from running there. That makes sense, as it has short, sharp-pointed leaves and it bears many red berries. The berries do not grow on the stem but rather seem to grow from the middle of the leaves.

It is a hardy plant, handles freezing weather and grows well in a pot.

– Joe Phelan, Lincoln

Judging from the photograph you sent, the plant has been identified as Ruscus aculeatus, also known as Butcher's Broom and Knee Holly, according to UC Master Gardener Roberta Hopkins.

A member of the lily family, Ruscus aculeatus grows in Sunset zones 4-24, tolerates deep shade, and requires little to no water once established.

The plants are 1 to 4 feet tall and the "leaves" are 1 to 3 inches long, leathery, dull and dark green.

Ruscus aculeatus is unusual because the "leaves" are actually branch extensions, called "cladodes," that end in a spiny point.

In spring, there are greenish-white flowers that seem to bloom from the center of the "leaf." The flowers mature into red berries by September.

We have a sago palm that is about 10 years old and about 5 feet high. Every year, the center branches part and new growth comes in to fill the void. That is, until about two years ago. The center parted but no new growth has come in. There is new growth at the bottom, but that is it. Can you tell me what is happening?

– Rich Thomas, Sacramento

According to UC Master Gardener Carol Rogala, sagos, interestingly, are not really palms. Although their appearance resembles that of true palms, they are cycads and have an unusual reproduction process that places them somewhere between ferns and flowering plants.

Cycads are dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. Plants of both sexes are needed in close proximity to produce seed.

Sagos are relatively easy to grow once they are planted in the landscape, and have very few pest problems. They are susceptible to stem rots under conditions of excessive irrigation and poor drainage and aeration. Scale insects and mealy bugs can sometimes be a serious problem.

Sagos also succumb to sunburn under high temperatures and intense light conditions. While they will tolerate full sun, they look better when grown in partial shade.

Sagos planted in good garden soil do not require much fertilizer. They have only one or two flushes of growth a year. Heavy nitrogen applications are not needed. Generally, the best results can be obtained with the use of a slow-release fertilizer or products such as blood meal or bone meal, which decompose slowly.

Failure to put out new leaves may be caused by many problems. Look at your tree and verify if you see any signs of pests or diseases.

Are the leaves healthy? Is the stem firm and hard? The plant may simply be getting ready to put out its reproductive cone.

Most plants grown well will eventually put out new leaves.


Questions are answered by master gardeners at the UC Cooperative Extension services in Sacramento and Placer counties.

Send questions to Garden Detective, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852. Send email to h& Please put "Garden Detective" in the subject field and include your postal address. MORE ONLINE

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