The Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata), also called bottle tree, water palm or elephant tree – often it is still in trade under its old generic name Nolina. The tree originally comes from Mexico. It grows there in tropical dry forests as a succulent tree and can reach a height of about nine metres and the trunk a diameter of one metre. In pot culture the elephant foot remains however clearly smaller. It belongs to the asparagus family (Asparagaceae) and is related to the yucca, among others. an elephant foot is robust, very durable and extremely easy to care for. It is particularly suitable for indoor plant beginners, as it also forgives one or two maintenance errors.
The plant has a rounded, thickened stem base and densely growing, overhanging narrow leaves. With its unusual habit it reminds of the shape of an elephant foot or even of a bottleneck, as the various designations already suggest. Even if the Ponytail Palm grows very slowly, it can reach a height of almost 1.5 meters after a few years. The exceptionally thickened, borky trunk serves as a water reservoir. Above the thickening, the elephant feet usually grow with one shoot, more rarely with several shoots.
The grey-green and very narrow, loosely hanging leaves can grow up to 50 centimetres long and are arranged helically around the shoot. Like the yucca and the dragon tree, they sprout at the shoot tip and die off gradually at the bottom, so that only the shoot ends are leafed on.
In very favourable, i.e. sunny and warm locations, it forms long panicles with small white flowers after many years, but even older plants rarely flower in indoor cultivation.
As a true desert child, the elephant foot loves a place in the sun with full enjoyment of light. In the shade it would grow even slower than it already does. The summer temperatures are allowed to climb as high as the weather brings. However, strong midday heat should be softened by curtains or shady trees in front of the window, otherwise the petite leaves burn very quickly. In winter, temperatures should be between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius. Ponytail Palms quickly get cold feet in draughts, so you should spare them draughty places. They can also be cultivated outdoors in the summer, but they should be gradually accustomed to a new location over a period of two weeks. First place them in a slightly shaded position and move them to a lighter place every few days until the leaves have become accustomed to the bright sunlight.
The Ponytail Palm needs a well-permeable, loose soil. The substrate suitable is permeable cactus soil, also humus-rich leaf soil, which is mixed with a lot of coarse sand.
Due to its succulent trunk, the Ponytail Palm does not need much water. Therefore, watering should be moderate during the growth phase. The finger sample can be used to check the condition of the substrate. Water the Ponytail Palm until the first drops run out of the trigger hole. Frequent watering should be avoided, otherwise the leaves will turn brown and waterlogging will inevitably lead to root rot. The excess water should drain well or be drained from the pot after pouring. During the winter rest period, watering is not carried out at all if the plant is not too warm.
Fertilization is also very low, because the Ponytail Palm gets by with a minimum of nutrients. It is best to fertilize once in spring and once in summer with liquid cactus fertilizer. Don’t fertilize at all in winter.
The plants grow very slowly and can cope very well with a minimum of substrate as they can store water and nutrients in their stem. The root ball is therefore only repotted when the thickened stem base almost covers the pot surface or when it begins to push itself out of the vessel. The ideal repotting period is early spring from mid-February to the end of March. Since the Ponytail Palm is a flat root, you should rather choose a flat plant container. So also the thickened foot comes properly to the validity.
A backcut is also possible at any time with the Ponytail Palm. You can simply cut the trunk at any height to stimulate the formation of side shoots below the interface. To prevent the interface from drying out, however, it should be treated with a wound dressing.
The secondary shoots of large Ponytail Palms are suitable for propagation. The side shoots formed in the leaf axils are cut off in summer and placed in a sand/peat mixture. The most reliable way of root formation is to keep the soil warm in a closed cultivation bed to protect the cuttings from moisture loss. The more common and better method is propagation by seed, as the trunk develops better into its typical shape. However, it is difficult to collect your own seeds, as the plants rarely bloom and fruit. You can also buy Beaucarnea recurvata seeds online.
Diseases and pests
If the young leaves become yellow and soft, this is usually due to maintenance errors. Possible cause is root damage due to waterlogging. Even with strongly fluctuating temperatures in winter, the leaves of the plants sometimes turn yellow. If the pots stand on cold stone floors, a wooden board or polystyrene plate should be placed under the pots in winter to insulate the root ball against the cold of the floor. If the air is too dry, spider mites and scale insects can occur. The cobwebs of the spider mites are easily recognizable by the leaf axils and leaf margins. Since scale insects are well camouflaged, one should examine its elephant foot regularly for an infestation above all in the winter. From time to time, Ponytail Palms are attacked also by Schmier- or Wollläusen, whose webs remind of cotton-wool-bushes and are to be recognized well. The infected leaves should be isolated and the remaining specimens treated with a soft soap solution for prevention.
I am Don Burke, one of the authors at My Garden Guide. I am a horticulturist that cultivates, grows, and cares for plants, ranging from shrubs and fruits to flowers. I do it in my own garden and in my nursery. I show you how to take care of your garden and how to perform garden landscaping in an easy way, step by step.I am originally from Sydney and I wrote in local magazines. Later on, I have decided, more than two decades ago, to create my own blog. My area of specialization is related to orchid care, succulent care, and the study of the substrate and the soil. Therefore, you will see many articles dedicated to these disciplines. I also provide advice about how to improve the landscape design of your garden.