The ponytail palm, also known as a bottle palm and an elephant’s foot tree, has grown in popularity. The long, flowing leaves drape over the trunk giving it a “ponytail” effect. It is an ideal houseplant with it being easy to care for, and not to mention stunning.
In this article, we will delve into how to care for a ponytail palm, its various characteristics, as well as aspects to consider to ensure your houseplant flourishes.
The ponytail palm is not a palm at all but rather a succulent. It’s part of the Asparagaceae family and is more closely related to an agave.
Interesting to note that the ponytail palm was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit
Its scientific name is beaucarnea recurvata, however, in Europe it is commonly known as nolina recurvata. The ponytail palm is originally native to Eastern Mexico but is enjoyed as an indoor and even outdoor plant across the globe.
The following are a few key characteristics to give you a better idea about this easy to care for houseplant.
How Big do They Get?
When indoors it typically grows between 1 to 3 feet (30.5cm – 91.5cm) tall with a width of 1 to 4 feet (30.5cm – 122cm), and its leaves grow up to 3 feet (91.5cm) long. The rate of growth is dependent on its conditions, especially the amount of sunlight it receives.
It rarely grows beyond 4 feet (122cm) indoors, however outdoors it can reach up to a whopping 20 feet (610cm) or taller.
How Fast do They Grow?
In favorable conditions, the ponytail palm’s rate of growth is very slow. It grows less than 1 foot (30.5cm) a year, and it typically grows 4 inches (10cm) during the spring and summertime.
This houseplant is your friend for life. We’re being serious, the beaucarnea recurvata can be extremely long-lived if kept in a suitable environment and is well cared for. It has been recorded to live for decades and even centuries as a houseplant.
The oldest outdoor ponytail palm has been recorded to have a lifespan of 350 years in Mexico
Is It Toxic to Pets?
This houseplant is not toxic to cats or dogs; however, it may need some protection of its own. Cats are renowned to scratch the trunk and play with the long leaves, so maybe keep it out of a cat’s reach by hanging your ponytail palm up.
We all need to show our houseplants some TLC, coming up are various important factors to consider when caring for it.
How Often to Water
A simple and easy-to-remember motto is, ‘When in doubt, maybe drought.’ The plant is accustomed to an arid, dry, and sunny environment as it is native to desert-like surroundings in Mexico.
The beaucarnea recurvata stores water in its rather onion-shaped bulbous-based trunk called a caudex. This means that it only requires to be watered every 3 to 4 weeks during the summertime, and every 5 to 6 weeks during winter.
A general rule is the smaller the pot, the more sunlight it gets, and the warmer the days, the more water is required
To avoid overwatering check the soil, the top 1 to 2 inches (2.5cm – 5cm) of it must be completely dry in between watering.
Ample drainage is imperative for the success of this houseplant, and many others such as the ZZ plant. There are two main ways to ensure sufficient drainage occurs; the potting soil mixture and the type of pot.
The beaucarnea recurvata does best with lightweight potting mixes or even commercial cacti potting mixes. The soil must be aerated, light, and dry to enable fast drainage. To enhance drainage, try adding some gravel or sharp sand to your potting mixes.
For best results try combining the following:
- 1 part potting soil
- 1 part perlite
- 1 part sand
To assist with drainage, the pot can have a hole at the bottom for water to easily flow out, to prevent soggy conditions. Remember to place a saucer underneath the container to avoid any mess or damage to furniture or flooring.
A quick tip: it is not essential, but terra-cotta or clay pots are ideal as they absorb more water allowing for the soil to dry quicker
This houseplant does not require regular pruning or trimming to remain healthy, however, if the tips of its leaves are dark or discolored, you may trim these portions off to maintain its appearance. Any damaged or brown tips should also be cut back until the healthy portion of the leaf.
Make sure that the scissors, pruners, or tools used are clean to prevent the transfer of any diseases. Simply wipe the blades with a rubbing alcohol mixture.
To be on the safe side, you may want to wear a pair of gardening gloves when handling the leaves due to their small, serrated edges.
Due to its slow growth rate, it only needs to be repotted every 2 to 3 years, depending on the size of the pot. If your goal is to grow a larger ponytail palm, then you should repot it every year in a bigger pot.
You should repot if the roots are growing through the drainage hole of the container, or if there is less than 1 to 2 inches (2.5cm – 5cm) of space between the sides of the pot and the base of the trunk.
For the best results follow these quick and easy steps:
- Fill the new pot about a quarter of the way with the potting mix, and then pour some water on top to settle it
- Place the plant into the center of the container, leaving a 2 inch (5cm) gap between the caudex and the side of the pot
- Fill up the container with soil so that the plant is no deeper than it was originally growing in the previous pot
- Firm the soil by gently pressing on it
- Finally, water it until the water begins to flow out the draining hole, and then place it back in its sunny position
Here’s a tip; repot your beautiful plant in the early spring to allow for its roots to fully establish in the container before the winter chill sets in
Let’s look at what makes up an optimum environment for the beaucarnea recurvata, and how to further care for it.
The number one rule for the houseplant, just like the desert rose, is the more sunlight, the more growth. The ponytail palm is native to sunny, desert regions, and flourishes in bright light. This houseplant can tolerate the shade, but it will not thrive, so make sure to position it close to a windowsill with plenty of sun shining through.
Additionally, if it has been positioned in the shade for some time, don’t suddenly move it into direct sunshine, rather move the plant to a sunny position for a few hours a day for about a week. This will allow it to adjust to the change in light intensity.
We cannot emphasize this enough; good drainage is imperative for this houseplant to thrive. The beaucarnea recurvata prospers in lightweight potting mixes that don’t retain too much moisture, much like the spider plant. You can make use of commercial cacti or succulent potting mixtures.
We suggest using one of these three mixtures:
- 1 part coarse sand, 1 part potting soil, and 1 part perlite
- 1 part compost, and 1 part potting mixture
- 1 part coarse sand, 1 part compost, and 1 part potting soil
As previously mentioned, check that the top 1 to 2 inches (2.5cm – 5cm) of the potting mixture is dry before watering.
The very first thing to do, is to check whether or not your potting mix already has slow-releasing fertilizer contained in it. If it does, then you will only need to add additional fertilizer in 3 months.
Cacti or succulent liquid fertilizer is perfect for this houseplant, however, only at half the strength, so dilute it before fertilizing.
The beaucarnea recurvata is not overly hungry, and only requires fertilizer every 4 weeks during spring and summer when it’s actively growing. Fertilizer is unnecessary during the cooler seasons.
Be wary not to add too much fertilizer as it can cause the foliage to burn and become brown.
Salts in the fertilizer can build up in the pot over some time, so it’s best that the soil is flushed every 3 to 4 months.
We’ll explain the steps to flushing below:
- Run a gentle stream of water through the potting mixture for 5 minutes
- Let the water completely drain out through the drainage hole
- Place your beautiful succulent back in its original position
Pot Size and Type
This houseplant prefers to be crowded and confined in its container. It only requires a pot that is 2 inches (5cm) wider in diameter than the base of the plant. It is recommended that the pot have a hole at the bottom to allow for adequate drainage.
To keep your houseplant the same size, plant it in the same sized container, however, if the roots were growing through the drainage hole you will need to repot it in a bigger container. If you wish for your ponytail palm to grow, then plant it in a larger pot.
Just like plants in the desert, beaucarnea recurvata can withstand a wide range of temperatures. The ideal temperature is 65 to 85°F (18 – 29.5°C) during the daytime, and 50 to 55°F (10 – 13°C) at night.
Make sure that you keep it warm as it cannot survive prolonged periods of cold weather.
Typically, it will do well with the average household level of humidity. This houseplant is similar to the jade plant in that it doesn’t require much humidity, but if the leaves begin to dry and brown, you may need to spray water on them.
Try to avoid placing it under or near a vent as the draft may dry out the foliage.
Indoors vs. Outdoors
The beaucarnea recurvata is actually both a popular indoor and outdoor plant.
Just remember that sunshine is super important to keep your plant healthy so make sure that when it’s indoors it’s in a sunny place.
Springtime is the best time to transfer your houseplant outdoors, however, if you live in a cooler climate, the outdoors is not suitable.
Does It Flower or Bloom?
The ponytail palm as a houseplant does not bloom or flower. When outdoors it can only flower once it’s 10 years old, but may even take up to 30 years.
Did you know that a beaucarnea recurvata is a dioecious? Meaning that some plants produce a male or a female flower. You can tell which one is a male or female by its color. The male flowers are an ivory, creamy white color, while a female blooms a pink flower
How to Grow
So, now that you know how to care for your plant, let’s explore actually growing, propagating, and planting it.
Dividing and Cutting Those Bundles
You may have bought a pot with multiple bundles or maybe a secondary shoot has grown, and you want to remove it. Separating the bundles is a simple process, and even makes for a great gift.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to split your bundles:
- Remove the ponytail palm by simply using a flat object, such as a knife. Move the knife along the container’s edges to loosen the plant and slide it out
- Use your hands or a garden trowel to gently remove the soil surrounding the roots
- Use a clean, sharp blade to cut downwards between the bundles to separate the connecting roots and stem. Be cautious to avoid cutting too deep into the stem and surrounding roots
- Pull and separate the houseplant
- Fill a quarter of the new container with a potting mixture, and make sure that the pot’s diameter is at least 2 inches (5cm) larger than the caudex
- Add water to settle the soil, and place the bundle in the center of the pot
- Place additional potting mixture 1 inch (2.5cm) below where the leaves of the ponytail palm begin to emerge
- Water the pot until water flows through the drainage hole
- Finally, place the new member of your collection in a bright, sunny area
Once your ponytail palm is mature it will periodically produce secondary shoots known as pups, offsets, or baby plants. It’s best to remove them during Spring when they are actively growing.
The following steps will guide you through the propagation process:
- First things first, carefully remove the ponytail palm out of its container
- Gently remove the soil with your hand to expose the offset, then use a sterilized blade to cut it off from the parent plant below the soil line. Make sure that you keep the baby plant’s roots
- Dip the cut end of the pup into a rooting hormone, and plant it into a pot a quarter way filled with a potting mix that was settled with water
- Push the offset’s cut end below the soil line
- Place the pup’s new home in indirect sunlight, and keep the soil moist, so that it doesn’t completely dry out
- In as little as a month the offset will begin to grow its roots. You can tell this has happened when new growth begins
- Once growth begins you can move the baby ponytail palm into a brighter spot, and care for it as you would an adult
We previously discussed how to propagate ponytail palms using its pups, but you can also grow the houseplant fresh from a seed. Again, the best time is springtime, while the weather is warming up and the length of daytime is increasing.
Below is a guide to growing your baby ponytail palm from scratch:
- Gently scarify the seed by pressing it against a nail file until you see a little pale spot form. This will aid in germination
- Place the seed in a bowl of water for 24 hours
- Now, fill a 3 inch (7.5cm) pot with a mixture of 4 parts coarse sand, 2 parts milled peat, 1 part perlite, and 1 part sterile potting soil. Add some water to make the soil moist
- Place the seed on the surface, and gently press it halfway into the soil. Spread a thin layer of coarse sand over the seed, then spray water over to settle it
- Put the container on a heating mat set at 70°F (21°C), with a clear plastic sleeve covering. Position the mat near a window with ample amounts of sunlight
- Ensure that the seed is watered to maintain moist soil, but avoid making it soggy
- Keep an eye out for sprouting in 1 to 2 months. Remove the plastic sleeve, heating mat, and continue to water the seedling when the soil is mostly dry
- Once the foliage is mature, position it under bright light and care for it as you would an adult ponytail palm
Why May It Be Dying?
Not everything goes according to plan, and sometimes your houseplant may run into some problems. Let’s discuss what you should look out for, and how to get your houseplant back on track.
The most common reason your plant may be dying is overwatering. Overwatering causes stem rot and root rot, which is evident when the trunk has a soft, mushy feeling to it, and the leaves turn yellow.
The wrong type of soil, one that is heavy and moist, may further be the reason for your houseplant’s demise, as it prevents effective drainage.
Dehydration is another reason it may be dying which causes brown tips to appear on the leaves as well as a limp trunk.
Adding more fertilizer than required does not ensure faster growth but may instead harm your plant. The overuse of fertilizer can cause the plant’s leaves to burn and become brown.
Beaucarnea recurvata thrives in dry, sandy environments, so too much moisture and water can cause serious damage to its stem and roots.
The stem first begins to rot resulting in yellow leaves and a soft trunk. The continued prolonged overwatering leads to root rot, which causes the caudex to become mushy and the deterioration of its roots.
To prevent root or stem rot, the pot should have a hole at the bottom to allow for good drainage, and the soil should be lightweight and dry. The addition of gravel or pebbles will allow for excess water to run off the roots, preventing a moist environment.
In the case of advanced root rot, simply remove the plant from its container and trim off the infected regions using a sterilized, sharp blade. You can then repot the plant in a new well-draining container.
Brown Tips on Leaves
If your plant has brown tips or marks on its leaves there is no one simple answer, however, there are simple solutions and actions you can take.
The most common reason for the browning of leaves is overwatering. The beaucarnea recurvata grows best in arid, bright, and warm environments. So, when it is left sitting in water its roots become too saturated, causing the leaves to brown.
Immediately refrain from watering your plant, and extend its dry period before watering again. To avoid overwatering check that the soil is completely dry before watering your plant.
If the leaves of your plant are curly, crispy, and brown, this is an indication that it is not getting enough water or there is a lack of humidity in its environment.
Follow these steps to revive your plant:
- Place the pot with your plant in a sink with 3 to 4 inches (7.5cm – 10cm) of cold water
- Let the houseplant sit for 45 minutes, to allow the water to completely soak through the soil
- Check that at least 3 inches (7.5cm) of the soil is wet
- Remove the pot out of the sink, and allow it to drain all the excess water
- Place it back in its original sunny position
When adding too much fertilizer, your houseplant’s leaves begin to burn. This causes the leaves to brown and straighten. Try diluting your fertilizer before using it again, and repot your plant in a new pot with well-drained soil.
Wrapping It Up
The ponytail palm is perfect for someone inexperienced in caring for houseplants or just beginning their houseplant collection. It is relatively easy to care for and will live in its home for a long time.
Its long, luscious leaves and sturdy trunk will thrive when kept in a warm, sunny and bright environment. Just remember to be cautious when watering or fertilizing it, as this houseplant doesn’t require a lot of water or feeding.