How to Plant, Grow and Care For Ponytail Palm Trees
Thinking of growing ponytail palm trees indoors but aren't sure where to start? These popular indoor palms make lovely houseplants. In this article, gardening expert and houseplant enthusiast Madison Moulton shares everything you need to know about Ponytail Palms, including their maintenance and care.
Ponytail palms are unique plants that appear to come straight out of a fairytale.
Although they are called palms, they don’t actually belong to the palm family of plants (Arecaceae) but to the asparagus family Asparagaceae. But they certainly do resemble a palm, with a single stem emerging from a mounded trunk base and strappy leaves flowing in cascades from the top. This interesting plant is also known as Elephant’s Foot, due to the base of the trunk resembling an elephant’s foot in size and color.
Ponytail palms are long-living plants that are easy to grow and survive with a little neglect in the home. Just about the only thing to worry about is overwatering and light. Otherwise, they are fuss-free.
Although these palm trees are grown indoors and out around the world, they have gained popularity in the houseplant community in recent years. We’re going to break down how you can grow these fascinating plants in your own home.
Ponytail Palm Overview
Plant type Houseplant
Species Beaucarnea recurvata
Height 3 – 4 feet
Native Area Veracruz, Mexico
Exposure Bright indirect light to direct sun
Watering Requirements Low
Pests and Diseases Scale, Mealybugs, Spider Mites
Soil Type Well-draining
Soil pHt 6.5 to 7.5
What is a Ponytail Palm?
The Ponytail Palm is an evergreen plant with an unusual structure. The stem includes a caudex, defined as “the axis of a woody plant, especially a palm or tree fern, comprising the stem and root.” This is different from normal stem shapes as the basal stem that grows with the plant is considered part of the rootstock.
Other plants that have this structure include some cycads, ferns and palms, which explains why the Ponytail Palm is called a palm despite coming from a different plant family.
Beaucarnea recurvata is often included in the genus Nolina, specifically named for its distribution in Mexico and extending into the southern USA. It is also included in this group because of its ability to survive on limited water in desert-like settings.
The Ponytail Palm is from Mexico, specifically the state of Veracruz along the eastern coastline. In its natural habitat, Beaucarnea recurvata is critically endangered as listed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).
Wild populations of the plant are at risk due to habitat loss and illegal harvesting of wild plants for the international market.
They also have a relatively slow growth rate and uncertain flowering times that contribute to the problem. Plus, the lack of water, overgrazing and climatic conditions ensure that the rate of natural propagation is very low.
Awarded the British Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit, it’s clear that this species is something special. Some of the requirements for this award are a plant that does not need specialist care, is not susceptible to many pests and diseases and is stable when propagating.
All these attributes apply to the Ponytail Palm. This, combined with a unique shape and wonderful look, make them ideal for growing as a houseplant.
In an indoor setting, Ponytail Palms are restricted by the container and will not get more than about 4 feet tall. If you have them in a larger container, these popular houseplants can grow quite tall. When grown outdoors, they can reach up to 10 feet and even in ideal conditions up to 30 feet in height. They are also long lasted, with some recorded to be around 350 years old in Mexico.
The recurving foliage that sprouts like a fountain from the top of the single stem is also why it has recurvata in its Latin name. These strap-like leaves that droop down are also how it got the term Ponytail in the common name.
Ponytail Palms will only flower once the plant matures, which could be after 20 years or more. The caudex also needs to be big enough to provide the energy to support flowering.
The blooms are very showy cone-shaped panicles that stretch out about the leaves in a creamy or pink color. The color of the flowers will show if the plant is a female or a male (female flowers are pink and male are a creamy ivory color).
The actual flowers are very small, but the whole cluster is impressive. The blooming season runs from spring into summer and once flowering starts, they may even bloom up to 3 times a year. Unfortunately, due to differences in conditions, they are unlikely to flower indoors.
In their natural habitat, Ponytail Palms grow at an altitude of 650 – 5600 feet above sea level. In these areas, they reside on steep slopes and in rocky soil that contains few nutrients. The area is subtropical, with an average temperature of around 70F and a dry season of at least 7-8 months. These conditions explain the structure of the plant and the conditions it prefers.
Ponytail Palms are similar to any Yucca species with care and maintenance, preferring a little neglect. This makes them a great houseplant for beginners. But some understanding of their natural environment with help with their care, making them incredibly easy to grow.
Ponytail Palms also make good plants for growing on patios or balconies, or areas where height is needed close to a bright window in the home.
How to Grow
Ponytail Palms come in a variety of sizes, from tiny bonsai pots to massive containers that allow the plants to grow much bigger. The bigger the pot, the bigger they grow. Also consider the circumference of the basal stock to determine the right size container.
In their natural environment, Ponytail Palms are found in bright sunlight and dappled shade. That means they can adjust to most areas indoors, except for extremely low-light areas (like bathrooms).
They prefer bright indirect light indoors, close to a window but not in direct sunlight that may scorch the leaves. The more light they get, the better they will grow. They will also be happy with an hour or two of gentle direct morning sun.
Watering correctly is one of the essential elements of a Ponytail Palm’s health. When you think of the dry climate they naturally live in, its easy to see why overwatering this plant will lead to an untimely demise.
These plants need a good deep watering occasionally in the summer and almost nothing in winter – just enough to keep the leaves from wilting. Overwatering will result in the basal growth becoming squishy and the stem rotting. Keep an eye on that problem and adjust the watering schedule as needed.
The stem holds a lot of water to keep the plant hydrated during times of drought, much like succulents. Allow the container to dry out before you consider watering again. The rule is – if in doubt, don’t water, but also don’t give the plant no water at all. The proper soil will also help with drainage to prevent waterlogging.
When watering, allow the water to drain out the drainage holes in the base of the container before placing back in position. For larger pots that are difficult to move, place the container on pot feet with a water-catching tray away from the base of the pot so that the pot does not sit in water.
These plants need high-quality potting soil with good drainage. Add some additional drainage materials like perlite or sand to standard potting mix to improve drainage levels.
You can make your own mix perfectly suited to the need of your Ponytail Palm, or simply use a premixed soil for cacti and succulents to give the plant as much drainage as possible.
Temperature & Humidity
Ponytail Palms are resistant to temperatures down to 50F. They can handle lower temperatures for a very short time, but will stop growing until temperatures increase. Anything below freezing (32F) will more than likely kill the plant.
Coming from subtropical to tropical areas, Ponytail Palms are happiest in warmer climates. That’s what makes them so great for growing indoors. The ideal temperature range is around 60 – 80F. These plants will also tolerate higher temperatures if watered more often.
If your Ponytail Palm is on a patio in colder climates, plant in a moveable container it can be moved indoors over winter. The other alternative is to cover the plant in fleece or frost protection fabric in the colder months to keep it going until spring.
Normal humidity levels are suitable for this plant – not too high and not too low. Between 40% and 50% is the level they like the best. They tolerate dry conditions more than wet and additional humidity may have a negative effect on their health and promote diseases and pests.
In order to fertilize properly and avoid overfertilizing, it’s best to understand how the plant keeps growing in its natural environment (with very few nutrients in the soil). The bulbous trunk of the plant is not only an interesting attribute but also has the very important purpose of holding nutrients and water to help the plant survive.
Because the plants also grow very slowly, this storage facility is enough to keep the plants alive and growing.
As a houseplant, however, it’s better to feed your plants in the growing season so that they are not stressed and to protect them against attacks from pests and diseases. This effort will also increase the speed at which these slow-growing beauties grow naturally.
In late spring and during summer months, feed your Ponytail Palm with a liquid plant food or a cacti and succulent-specific fertilizer. The product you choose should have a low nitrogen ratio and more potassium and phosphorous. You want to strengthen the stem and caudex to keep the plant healthy and the strappy leaves will take care of themselves.
In winter, they have a little break and will need no feeding until spring again. Do not overfertilize your Ponytail Palm or the leaves may curl at odd angles.
These plants need very little care and maintenance – only the occasional trim to keep them neat and remove any damaged or dying foliage. The only pruning that needs to be done is to remove any pups for propagating.
Although they grow incredibly slowly, it is possible to propagate Ponytail Palms, either from offsets or from seed.
Ponytail Palms can be propagated from offsets or pups that sometimes appear at the base of the stem. This is quite rare, but if you are lucky enough to have it happen, wait until the pup is around 4 inches and then cut off with a sharp pair of secateurs.
Allow the cut end to callous over for a few days by setting out on a piece of newspaper and leaving it to dry out. Once the end has calloused over, dip the end in water and then into rooting hormone powder. Plant into fresh potting soil amended with additional drainage materials. Water well and position in a brightly lit place to grow on.
It’s not often that an indoor Ponytail Palm will flower, so the likelihood of getting seed of your own is unlikely. However, there is seed available online to propagate, although this way of growing is a long, arduous and more hit-and-miss than buying a small plant from a nursery. Anyone willing to try can follow the guidelines here and sow in spring.
Fill a tray or pot with seedling mix and stamp it down. Add the seeds to the top, spacing out at least an inch apart. Cover with a fine layer of seedling mix or a layer of vermiculite.
Water well with a gentle spray nozzle so as not to wash away the delicate seeds. Place in a propagator with a lid to keep in the moisture or cover with a plastic bag and place in a warm, sheltered position.
Check regularly that the soil is moist until the seeds germinate in about 14 days. Then place the trays in a brightly lit space to grow on. Make sure they remain watered and not dry out. When they are big enough (about 2 inches high) plant into individual pots and use the growing instructions above to take care of them.
Ponytail Palms are happy to be a little root bound and do not require repotting often. Take a look at your plants every 2-3 years and decide whether they need repotting. Also consider the size of the plant and the need for extra hands and sometimes even some helpful machinery if the plant is large.
Repot in early spring so the plant has a chance to settle in before the winter break. Remove the plant carefully from the pot, trying not to disturb the roots too much at the large base of the stem. Also be wary of the leaves as the serrated edges can cause skin damage.
Use a thin knife to loosen the plant from the pot and remove carefully. Wash off any soil from the roots and inspect them to see if any are damaged. Cut off any damaged and older roots and repot in fresh soil in a container that is a few sizes bigger.
The size of the container should have at least an inch between the bulbous stem and the edge of the pot all around. At this stage, you can add root hormone powder to the roots to help strengthen the plant and prevent shock.
Use a good mix of potting soil and drainage materials or cacti and succulent mix to plant in. Water well with a liquid fertilizer mixed into to give it a growth boost.
Although not plagued by many pests and diseases, Ponytail Palms can encounter things like scale, mealybugs and red spider mites. Most of the problems can be solved with ease. Other problems you may encounter related to incorrect care or environment, such as:
- Brown Leaves: Too much humidity or water
- Storage trunk mushy and stem rot: Too much water
- Stagnant growth: Lack of nutrients
- Light yellow leaves: Not enough sunlight or too much water
- Burnt or black spots on leaves: Too much direct sunlight
- Curling leaves: Too much fertilizer or underwatering
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does a Ponytail Palm last?
This plant is very long-lasting and will grow happily indoors for decades. There are also plants in Mexico that are reported to be over 350 years old, with many that are over 100 years.
How tall will a ponytail palm get?
In the wild these plants can grow up to 30 feet tall and the caudex at the base of the stem can grow up to 12 feet wide. But indoors, the size of the plants will be determined by the size of the container.
Some choose to grow Ponytail palms as bonsai plants in bonsai pots which are severely restricted. In normal containers, size will also depend on how often the plant is repotted.
Whatever the situation, keep in mind that they are very slow growing and it will take several years for the plant to get any significant height as a houseplant. Typically, it will grow to around 4 feet indoors.
Can I trim the leaves of a ponytail palm?
Unless the leaves are browning on the tips or damaged by sunburn, there is really no reason to trim the leaves, unless you would like to completely change the look of the plant. The leaves will not grow back so it’s best to leave them as is and only remove leaves that are damaged at the stem with a clean pair of sharp secateurs.
For beginners and experts alike, Ponytail Palms will do their best in containers and do not demand much attention, admired for their looks and unusual shape. They make a statement as a houseplant and bring height to a corner with a tropical feel.