Updated: Feb 7
Beaucarnea recurvata also known as the ‘Ponytail Palm’ or ‘Elephant’s Foot Plant’ is a succulent in the Asaparagaceae family which includes garden Asparagus, Agave, Dracaenas, Yucca and Spider Plants. It is not a true palm, but gets the name Ponytail Palm because the top growth resembles that of palms. It is native to southeastern Mexico where it grows in rocky, nutrient poor soils with infrequent rains.
The Ponytail Palm has a thick trunk-like stem called a caudex covered in a wrinkly gray bark. Its resemblance to an elephant’s foot is what gives it its other common name ‘Elephant Foot Plant’. This thick trunk holds onto water and nutrients for long periods of time which allows it to survive through long periods of drought and in nutrient poor soil.
Depending on the growing conditions, Ponytail Palms can grow anywhere from 10 to 30 feet when grown outdoors and the more sunlight the plant gets, the larger it will grow. It will also grow much larger when planted in the ground opposed to in a pot. Potted Ponytail Palm’s root growth is restricted when grown in pots, stunting their top growth. This is why Ponytail Palms that are grown indoors are much smaller and typically only grow to 4 feet tall.
The Ponytail Palm produces large flowers when it matures and is grown outdoors. Ponytail Palms rarely flower when grown indoors due to stunted growth from growing in pots and a lack of sunlight. The flowers are made up of large, branched spikes that house many small flowers that are white or pink in color. The flowers are highly fragrant which attract bees as pollinators.
The thick part of the trunk sits above the soil line and tapers into a thinner stem where the leaves form. The leaves are long and strap-like with tiny, serrated edges. Each leaf can grow up to three feet long indoors and even longer when grown outdoors. The longer the leaves grow, the more curly they become.
The new leaves form at the center of the stem giving it a fountain or ponytail-like appearance. As the leaves age, they move towards the bottom where they eventually brown and die. The dead leaves can be cut from the plant to give it a fresh looking appearance, otherwise they will naturally fall from the plant.
It is common for the leaf tips on the Ponytail Palm to dry and brown. The most common reasons for this is a lack of soil moisture, a lack of humidity or drafts from winds, open windows or AC vents.
Ponytail Palms mainly grow only one stem when grown indoors, but can grow offshoots out of its trunk when mature. These offshoots can be left on the plant for a clustered look or removed and propagated. Multi branched growth from offshoots can be encouraged by cutting off the top of the plant and removing the leaves. New stems will grow out the sides where the top was cut off.
Propagating Offshoot Steps
Step 1: Make a clean cut where the offshoot meets the trunk.
Step 2: Let the cutting callous over for a few days before planting.
Step 3: Plant the offset into a very coarse soil such as a 50/50 mixture of potting soil and perlite.
Step 4: Very lightly water the soil until the offshoot forms roots.
Ponytail Palms like a lot of sunlight. When grown outdoors, they can be acclimated to full sun but also do well in partial shade. Ponytail Palms need a lot of bright light when grown indoors to grow healthily. Place the plant near a window in your home that gets the most sunlight. The less sunlight a Ponytail Palm gets, the slower it will grow and the less water the roots will absorb.
If there is a lack of natural sunlight in your home and you are determined to grow a Ponytail Palm, a full spectrum grow light can be installed. Turn the grow light on for at least eight hours a day year round or use the grow light to supplement the lighting in the fall and winter when the days are shorter.
The Ponytail Palm is very drought resistant because its trunk acts as a water reservoir to keep the plant alive during long periods of drought in it native habitat. When watering, completely soak the soil so the entirety of the roots are able to absorb moisture. Allow the soil to completely dry out before watering again. In winter, the Ponytail Palm will go dormant and will not absorb as much water as in the growing season. Water sparingly in the winter about every 1-2 months.
Avoid getting on a watering schedule based on the amount of days it’s been since you last watered and instead get on a schedule based on how quickly the soil dries out. Soil moisture can fluctuate throughout the year and watering by how many days it’s been since you last watered can lead to over watering.
If you notice the leaves forming dry crunchy tips, it could be from either under watering or a lack of humidity. Make sure you check the soil moisture to ensure it is dry before watering because humidity can also play a role in dry leaf tips. Placing a humidifier near the plant for the first half of the day and moving it away from vents or drafts will help prevent the leaf tips from drying out.
The Ponytail Palm does well when grown in small pots because of its shallow root system. Keeping the plant in a small pot also keeps it small in size and helps prevent over-watering. There should only be about 2 inches of space in the pot for the roots to expand into. Anymore room than this can cause moisture to sit in the soil where the roots are not able to reach to absorb it.
The Ponytail Palm should be repotted every few years to freshen up the soil, even if placing the plant back into the same pot. Use a coarse potting soil that is able to dry out quickly. A pre-mixed potting soil designed for succulents can be used or you can mix your own soil. If mixing your own soil, mix 1 part potting soil, 1 part perlite and 1 part sand. General purpose potting soils hold onto too much moisture for the Ponytail Palms and the high organic matter can contribute to rotting. The idea is to mimic the native soils the Ponytail Palms grow in which are very coarse and low in nutrients.
Pot the Ponytail Palm into a pot made of a porous material such as terracotta. The clay will absorb excess moisture from the soil to help prevent root and trunk rot. Avoid planting into plastic pots that allow the soil to hold onto moisture longer.
Ponytail Palms do not need regular fertilizing because they hold onto nutrients in their trunk. Fertilize once a year in the spring with a succulent specific fertilizer such as Schultz Cactus Plus or Grow More Cactus Juice. Avoid using high nitrogen fertilizers as they will cause the plant to grow too fast and can develop weak growth as a result.
If you have any more questions about how to care for your Ponytail Palm, we will be happy to assist you in a virtual telehealth appointment with one of our Plant Specialists. Please click on one of the options below to book an appointment.