The ponytail palm or Beaucarnea recurvata is technically not a palm tree, but a decorative succulent that flourishes under dry conditions. It's widely considered to be one of the easiest houseplants to keep alive. The plant's swollen trunk stores liquid, allowing it to go for weeks at a time without being watered. Green, ribbon-shaped leaves cascade down from the top of the trunk like a ponytail, which explains the plant's common name. It is also known as elephant's foot or bottle palm.
Ponytail palms require very little water, so they thrive in the same quick-draining soil as cacti and other succulents. Potting mixes that contain plenty of sand and perlite tend to dry out quickly enough to satisfy the plants, especially in clay pots.
The ponytail palm is healthiest when slightly root-bound, so use a pot that is a couple of inches wider than the trunk. Avoid plastic containers because they retain moisture for too long.
Ponytail palms grow in direct proportion to their environments. As houseplants, they typically don't often exceed six feet in height, but when planted outdoors in ideal conditions, ponytail palms may grow up to 20 feet tall. They are known for growing very slowly and can live up to 100 years.
As a native of the desert, the ponytail palm prefers a hardiness zone between 9 and 11. This means 15 degrees F is about the coldest the plant can withstand. It thrives in hot, dry climates with winters that virtually never reach freezing temperatures.
The ponytail palm grows best when exposed to bright indirect light. If kept inside for a number of years, it will have to be gradually acclimated to outdoor sunlight over a number of weeks.
Like most succulents, the ponytail palm favors dry conditions. Overwatering is one of the few mistakes growers can make to upset this low-maintenance plant.
As a general rule, wait until the soil has totally dried out before watering. In most indoor environments, this is between two and three weeks.
Weight is the best method to gauge how often the plant needs water. By picking up your plant every few days, you will eventually get a feel for how heavy the pot is when it's dry or wet. Then, you can use your judgment, and water when the pot is at its lightest.
Spider mites appear on ponytail palm leaves as tiny red or brown specks. They are easily identifiable by the small holes and webbing they leave behind when feeding on foliage. If you notice a spider mite infestation, wash the plant by spraying the leaves with room-temperature water. Be sure to clean the undersides, where the mites usually live.
To address moderate infestations, mix neem oil with water and wash the leaves. For a more long-term solution, try using predatory mites, which will feed on spider mites and can quickly eliminate an entire population.
The ponytail palm is quite resilient to most diseases. However, when the plant is repeatedly overwatered, it may develop stem or root rot. Be on the lookout for yellowing leaves and mushy sections in the trunk. If you detect any fungus or mold, cut off the infected parts and repot the plant in dry soil.
The ponytail palm can be fertilized from the beginning of spring until the end of fall. It performs especially well when fertilized with worm compost or a 10-10-10 slow-release fertilizer diluted to half-strength.
Because the plant naturally rests in the winter months, it requires no additional fertilizer during the cold season.
This strange succulent propagates itself by producing side pups. The process ordinarily takes place once the palm has matured. Smaller versions of ponytail palms sprout from the base of the mother. These little shoots are divided from the parent plant, dipped in rooting hormone, and gently placed into moist soil to produce entirely new ponytail palms.
NASA found the ponytail palm to be one of the best air-purifying plants to keep indoors. It absorbs common toxic gasses through its leaves and converts them into fresh oxygen. Otherwise, the plant's primary use is purely aesthetic. The ponytail palm's unique foliage and inflated trunk make it stand out in most homes and gardens.
The ponytail palm is a close relative of both agave and asparagus. Like agave, it originated in the warm, sandy climate of Mexico. In warm environments like this, it has been used as an ornamental feature in landscaping for thousands of years. Europeans have been keeping ponytail palms as houseplants since learning of the plant in 1870.