Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea Recurvata)
Lots of plants look like something else, but it’s usually another real-life plant. Not so with the Ponytail Palm, Beaucarnea Recurvata. Nope, with all due respect to the folks who say “palm tree”, we think these crazy beauties look most like the wacky cartoon trees in the Dr. Seuss children’s book The Lorax … or Tina Turner’s hair circa 1985.
When you first encounter a mature Ponytail Palm, it can be difficult to decide where to look first. The foliage is an obvious choice. Each thin, tapered trunk—one at first, but more and more as the plant matures—is topped with a tuft of ridiculously long-but-thin (1 to 6 feet by ½ to 1 inches) leaves that burst out like fireworks and twist and curl as they arc gracefully downward.
But that’s not all. Because while the upper three fourths of each trunk is smooth and slender, at ground level, the trunk is massive, a chunky slab of plant 12” or more in width and covered in slightly wrinkled gray bark. This utterly unique shape is the reason Beaucarnea Recurvata is sometimes called the Elephant’s Foot Tree or the Bottle Tree. If you’re into botany trivia (and who isn’t really?) it’s also the reason the plant is able to store up to a year’s worth of water— which can come in handy in the semi-desert.
Ponytail Palm is a member of the family Agavaceae, which makes it a cousin of beloved plants such as dracaenas, Hawaiian ti plants, agave (go tequila!), and yuccas—and it might be the easiest to grow of them all.
It loves full sun, so you can place it anywhere with no fear of it getting crispy (but it can also handle medium light). It doesn’t drink much, so if you forget to water it now and then, it doesn’t mind. It grows very slowly, needing 20 years or more to reach its full height, so it rarely needs repotting or pruning (this also makes it great for bonsai). Finally, as long as you don’t let it sit in soggy soil (which invites root rot), it’s virtually disease-proof.
No doubt about it: Hairstyles may come and go … but this ponytail will always look fantastic.
Characteristics and traits of a Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea Recurvata)
- Scientific Name: Beaucarnea Recurvata or Nolina Recurvata
- Genus: Beaucarnea
- Family: Agavaceae
- Common Name: Ponytail Palm, Ponytail Plant, Bottle Palm, Elephant-Foot Tree, Nolina
- Indoor: All year round as long as temperatures are above 50F
- Outdoor Zones: 10-12
- Type: Perennial evergreen; Propagated via seed
- Mature Height: 12’-18’ outside, 6’-8’ indoors
- Mature Width: 8’-12’, 3’-5’ indoors
- Plant Height when Shipped: XXXXXX
- Growth Rate: Very Slow
- Flower: Rare - showy central stalk with several clusters of tiny cream-to-pink flowers that eventually become bell-shaped yellow-green seed capsules
- Foliage: Long, ribbon-thin, tapered, slightly curly single leaves of dark green that radiate from a central stalk.
Plant Care and Advice for Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea Recurvata)
- Grown In: Inside: all zones year round, Outside: zones 10-12
- Light Requirements: Loves full sun, will tolerate partial sun / medium indirect light
- Water Requirements: Water moderately, but let drain and allow soil to become significantly dry before watering again.
- Drought Tolerance: High
- Temperature: Likes indoor room temp. 65-85F. Outdoors can handle both warmer and cooler temps (down to 50F).
- Air Purification: Good
- Toxicity: Non-toxic
- Fertilizer: Indoor/potted plants: Liquid cactus fertilizer once per month in spring and summer indoors. Outdoor: 10-10-10 slow release once each spring.
- Container Friendly: Yes - But drainage is vital
- Planting: Because ponytail palms grow so slowly, they need only be repotted every 4-5 years. They also grow better when slightly pot-bound, so choose a pot wide enough to accommodate the plant’s abnormally large base, but not much wider. Also, do not fertilize for at least a month after repotting. Ponytail palms can survive in a wide variety of soils, from clay to sand and alkaline to acidic, but they absolutely require fast drainage. While many other tropical plants prefer a peat-based soil, ponytail palms do better with a very sandy soil such as cactus or succulent mixes, which resemble the soil of their arid homeland. Sandy soils drain extremely well, minimizing the threat of root rot.
- Plant Care: One of the quickest ways to stress a ponytail palm is to water it too often. This is a semi-desert plant whose stem is highly specialized to store water, so strive to keep that in mind. Water the soil (not the trunk) thoroughly, but then allow the soil to become almost completely dry between waterings. Don’t be afraid to skip a week or three of watering if the soil isn’t quite dry yet (especially in fall and winter). Ponytail palms love sunlight. They’re thrilled to get 8+ hours of direct sunlight outdoors, and have no fear of sun rooms or exposed south-facing windows indoors. They can withstand a reasonable amount of shade, though. They’ll grow even more slowly (which is saying something), but they should survive. Note, however, that the leaves can scorch if the plant is moved abruptly from shade to a full sun spot. To avoid this, move the plant back and forth for a week or two, giving it a little more time in the sun each day, so it can acclimate to the added sunlight (which, again, it will love). Although ponytail palms grow very slowly, they can eventually overgrow their spaces. If that happens, cut the stalk off at the height you’d like the new growth to begin. Within a few weeks, you should see new growth begin to sprout just below the cut line.
- Expert Advice: The biggest risk Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea Recurvata) faces is well-meaning plant lovers who overwater it, which frequently leads to root rot. If the leaves begin to turn yellow and become soft or flaccid, there’s a fair chance the plant has root rot and will need to be repotted ASAP. On the other hand, if the plant’s base begins to look shriveled or wrinkled, or if the foliage becomes dry and brown, you can safely increase the amount or frequency of water given—but do so in small, incremental amounts to avoid creating an “out of the fireplace and into the fire” scenario. Also, in the very rare instance that your Beaucarnea Recurvata isn’t getting enough humidity (say, if it’s sited next to a radiator) the edges of its leaves will brown. A bit of misting and/or resting the plant on a tray filled with a thick layer of pebbles rising above a thin layer of water should set things right, though moving the plant to a more suitable location may be a better long-term fix. Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea Recurvata) is susceptible to a handful of common plant pests, including mealybug, scales, and spider mites. Viable treatments include Neem oil, insecticidal soap, dabbing the pests individually with rubbing alcohol (which you’ll need to do every few days) or spraying the whole plant with a 10% rubbing alcohol solution. The plant can also contract various bacterial or fungal diseases, including stem rot, leaf spot, bacterial leaf streak, and the dreaded root rot. As many of these ailments are quite difficult to overcome once contracted, the best treatment is prevention. Don’t overwater, avoid getting the trunk wet when watering, and be sure excess water is draining quickly. Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea Recurvata) is typically propagated by seed (which is difficult to obtain, but requires no special treatment to germinate) or by removing small “pups” that grow at the base of the parent plant. As long as the pup has matured enough to have its own roots, it can be safely cut away from the parent plant and placed in its own pot. Newly planted pups appreciate humidity as they establish themselves, so regular light misting or covering them with a plastic bag for a time is recommended.