The ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) makes a surprisingly interesting desktop plant, considering that when grown outdoors it can be a full-size tree that towers over homes. When planted outside in full sun, ponytail palms can reach 30 feet tall, but they typically stay closer to 6 feet tall at maturity when grown indoors. Despite the common name and the appearance of the foliage, this plant is not a true palm, but rather a member of the Asparagaceae family that includes edible asparagus.
Indoors, these novel little trees are often grown in shallow pots, with a tuft of strappy green leaves emerging from a bulbous stem that seems to erupt from the soil. (The bulbous trunk is the source of one of its common names, "elephant's foot.") Given time and the right conditions, a small desktop plant will grow into respectable specimen plants, up to 6 feet in height or more. Ponytail palm is native to arid regions in Central America and is among the easiest of small trees to grow indoors.
When planted outdoors, spring is the traditional planting time, though a ponytail palm can be planted at almost any time. This is a very slow-growing, long-lived species. It may take five years or more for a 1-foot-tall plant to double in size.
|Botanical Name||Beaucarnea recurvata|
|Common Name||Ponytail palm, elephant's foot|
|Plant Type||Broadleaf evergreen shrub/ tree|
|Mature Size||6 to 8 feet tall; 3- to 5-foot spread (up to 30 feet tall when planted outdoors)|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Sandy, well-draining soil|
|Soil pH||6.5 to 7.5 (neutral)|
|Bloom Time||Seasonal bloomer|
|Flower Color||Creamy white|
|Hardiness Zones||10 to 11 (USDA); usually grown as a houseplant|
|Native Area||Semi-desert areas of Central America|
How to Grow a Ponytail Palm
Ponytail palm can be grown as an outdoor plant only in USDA Zones 10 and 11, where it prefers a sandy soil in a full-sun location. When grown outdoors, it is best planted in a cactus/succulent potting mix and placed in the sunniest spot you can find; in the right location, it is largely trouble-free, provided it gets a modest amount of water at regular intervals.
As an indoor plant, the ponytail is basically a "plant it and forget it" kind of plant, providing it has enough light to thrive and somewhat steady water throughout the growing season. Keep in mind, though, that the ponytail palm is an extremely slow-growing plant, so don't expect your desktop plant to transform into a corner specimen in one or two growing seasons.
Ponytail palms like full sun or bright indirect light. When grown as an indoor plant, situate it in the brightest location you can find—a window that gets direct sun or plenty of indirect light.
This plant is native to semi-desert areas of Central America, and when planted outdoors it does best in relatively sandy but organically rich soil. As in indoor plant, it does well in a cactus/succulent potting mix augmented with peat to improve its richness.
For potted indoor plants, water a ponytail palm during the growing season every seven to 14 days. The bulbous stem stores water, so be careful not to overwater it. During the winter season, cut back watering to monthly.
A ponytail palm planted in the garden rarely needs to be watered if you get any kind of regular rain. In dry climates or during periods of drought, a modest watering every two weeks is sufficient.
Temperature and Humidity
Ponytail palms prefer warm, arid temperatures, above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. However, they will survive down to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, providing these temps are not prolonged.
Feed weekly with liquid fertilizer during the growing season, or use a slow-release pellet fertilizer in the spring. Reduce feeding during the winter.
Potting and Repotting
For growing indoors, pot a ponytail palm in a smallish container filled with a cactus/ succulent potting mix that is blended with some peat. Repot in the spring as needed. If your goal is to grow a large palm tree, repot it every year, but if you want to keep it smaller, repot every two or three years. Ponytail palms will thrive when slightly underpotted in a container that confines the roots.
Propagating Ponytail Palms
Ponytail palms sometimes develop offsets ("pups") from the base, which can be removed and potted up individually. Generally, however, this is a difficult task to master because of a lack of roots on the offsets. If you want to try, use a rooting hormone to stimulate new root growth on the offset. A ponytail palm rarely (if ever) flowers indoors to produce viable seeds.
Pruning a Ponytail Palm
Damaged leaves should have the tips trimmed off back to healthy tissue. If the offsets ("pups") send up secondary shoots, you can prune these away to maintain a central trunk and classic tree-like appearance. However, a multi-stemmed tree is often desirable, and many people welcome these secondary shoots.
Like most houseplants, a ponytail palm can be susceptible to spider mites, mealybugs, and scale. Horticultural soaps or oils are good non-toxic methods for controlling these pests.
Potential but rare disease problems include leaf spots, stem rots, and bacterial leaf streak. Watering too much is the most common cause of fungal problems and stem rot.