The ponytail palm is a houseplant tree with distinct features. But before we get to these exceptional qualities, we need to clarify that the ponytail palms are not really palms at all. They have trunks and frond-like leaves but they are not related to palms even remotely. In fact, they’re just regular succulent plants that use the base of their trunks to store water.
This feature is probably the reason many gardeners like to grow the ponytail palm. It grows well both indoors and outdoors. But since it doesn’t need much irrigation thanks to the water tank at its disposal, this tree will tolerate neglect and still look its best. And did we mention that it takes its time to grow and flourish? That takes regular pruning off your chores list as well. So let’s take a deeper look at this amazing houseplant and see how you can grow and care for it.
Ponytail Palm at a Glance
Now that we have established that the ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) is not a palm, the next question is what is it exactly? As a member of the Asparagaceae family, this succulent plant originates from eastern Mexico. It goes by many other names too such as elephant foot tree and bottle palm. It’s easy to see why it gets those names. It’s the swollen base of the trunk.
When fully grown, the bottle palm can reach about 30 feet easily. If you grow it indoors, it usually won’t exceed 10 feet on a good day. The good news is, you can treat it like a bonsai and have it in a compact size that fits in any space inside your house. Its slow growth rate makes it ideal for beginners who have no prior experience with bonsai or even houseplants.
But it gets even more interesting. These hardy trees can survive in just about any setting or location. Whether there’s full sunlight or the lighting is dim, that hardly puts a dent in the tree’s cheerful appearance. It has its own defense mechanism against drought as its bulbous stem stores excess water.
And they have a long life as well. Ponytail palms can reportedly live for up to 100 years. So that’s one bonsai tree that will pass down generations and still look young, bright, and fresh. As the trunk gets thicker, the arching thin leaves drape the pot with grace and elegance.
How to Grow Elephant Foot Trees
You might be thinking, with such a hardy and easy to care for plant, growing the ponytail palm must be a breeze. But that’s not really the case. While in theory, you can grow the elephant foot trees from either seeds or offsets, in practice you won’t get seeds if you grow it as a houseplant. That’s because these trees rarely if ever flower indoors. Without seeds, the only way to propagate it is through babies that we call offsets.
So instead of talking about growing it from seeds, we’ll focus here on propagating the ponytail palm. Here’s what you need to do in easy steps.
- Once the ponytail palm has been around for a few years, it will start to develop some offsets around the base. Those are the babies you will cull to create new trees.
- The offsets need to be at least 4 inches long before you can cut them.
- Use a sterilized blade to gently remove the offset where it is attached to the plant. Keep as many roots on the offset as you can.
- Select a good container for the new baby. A small pot will do as long as it has a lot of drainage holes at the bottom.
- Fill the pot with a good potting mix. Make sure the soil is well-drained and loose.
- Water the soil to help it settle before you plant the offset.
- To give the offset a good chance at rooting, drop it in a growing hormone powder.
- Dig a hole in the moist soil deep enough to take the part of the baby that has roots sticking out of it.
- Fill the hole with soil and pack it to make sure the baby can stand on its own without tilting over and exposing the roots.
- Water the soil and place the pot in a warm and well-lit place.
- When the soil goes dry, water it again.
Ponytail Palm Care
That was the hard part, really. Getting those babies off the swollen stem of the mother tree is no easy feat. But after a few months, you’ll notice signs of life in the planted offset. It might take a few more months before leaves grow. For a tree that lives for a century, the ponytail palm sure has no sense of urgency or time.
Whether you grow them in the garden or as a houseplant, you need to pay attention to the soil the ponytail palm grows in. It has to be loose and well-drained. It’s easy to forget about that when you’ve had this tree for a few years. But the type of soil can make or break the new tree. So opt for a succulent potting mix since it’s well-drained and doesn’t cause damage to the fragile roots of the newly planted offset. You can also make your own mix. Just add equal parts, soil, perlite, and sand to create the perfect potting mix for your bottle palm.
One of the perks of growing the ponytail palm is that you don’t have to worry about watering it regularly. At the base of the tree, the trunk is swollen. That is a natural water reservoir where the tree keeps all the extra water it absorbs from the soil. So even if you forget to water it, the tree will just turn to its stored water and use it to survive and thrive. In general, you should avoid overwatering the elephant palm tree. You’ll need to wait for the soil to go dry before you irrigate it. Give the soil the dry test by digging a few inches in the topsoil to make sure it’s dry.
As a native of Mexico, our ponytail palm would expect to get plenty of sunlight. It needs at least 5 hours of full sun every day. But it would settle for less if you happen to live in an area that doesn’t get much sun all year round. For indoors and bonsai, you can place it on a window sill facing the west or south. This will ensure the tree gets a lot of light even if it doesn’t have enough sun exposure. The less light in the room the fewer leaves the tree grows over time. You’ll notice that the new leaves are not as green and lush as the old ones. This is a sure sign of light deprivation.
To understand the adequate temperatures that the ponytail palm requires, we need to find out their hardiness zones. They have USDA hardiness zones between 9 and 11. But if you grow them indoors, they are hardy enough to thrive at room temperature without any issues. However, you should never allow the temperature to drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This will impact the growth of the tree. So keep it away from cold wind or open windows in the winter.
As with all plants known for their longevity, the ponytail palm will need repotting every couple of years. This has to do with the soil itself rather than an overgrown root system. After a while the soil becomes impoverished and its nutrition depleted. As the plant grows, it also needs more space to grow new leaves and spread its grace around. You shouldn’t wait for more than three years before repotting. You can increase the diameter of your new pots incrementally by one inch at a time. When you repot the tree, never let the bulbous part get buried under the soil.
Pests and Diseases
You’ll encounter a few health issues when you grow the ponytail palm. That’s to be expected from a tree that lives for so long. First, we’ll talk about the pests they attack the tree and how to get rid of them. Two types of pests seem to relish this tree and make it their home. The first is mealybugs. They feed on the sap of the plant and spread a white powder all over the crown of the tree. Then you have the scale insects. They look like brown discs on the green leaves and they also feed on the natural sap.
Neither of these insects is life-threatening to the tree and the worst they can do is tarnish the beauty of the leaves. But that doesn’t mean that you should tolerate them. You can use a piece of cotton soaked in rubbing alcohol to dissolve the scale insects and get rid of the eggs. This method works well with mealybugs as well. It’s safer than using pesticides inside your house.
As for diseases, the most common ones are the following.
- Brown tip leaves: When the tips of the leaves turn brown and crisp, that means that the humidity levels in the room are very low. You should mist the tree once a week to keep the leaves looking lush green. Also, cut off the brown tips since they won’t turn green again.
- Soft trunk top: This often happens when the tree is overwatered. The crown is usually heavy and too much water in the soil makes the top of the tree go soft. It will bend to one side and look about to keel over. Stop watering immediately and wait for the tree trunk to become solid again. You might have to repot it and trim off the damaged roots.
- No growth: Another common issue is that the tree stops growing. It’s been months since you saw a new shoot and the tree seems at a standstill. Check for mealybugs and make sure the plant is getting enough light.