The ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) is an eye-catching and low-maintenance house plant. Despite its name, it’s not a true palm but belongs to the Asparagaceae family. Originating from Mexico, it’s also known as Nolina (its former genus name), the elephant’s foot tree, or bottle palm due to its swollen trunk base. Its unique appearance, resilience and ease of care make it an excellent choice for both beginner and experienced gardeners.
The ponytail palm is easily recognisable by its long, slender, and arching leaves that resemble a ponytail, hence its name. It can reach a height of 4.5m in the wild but more realistically 2.5m when grown indoors.
As a slow-growing plant perennial plant, the ponytail palm can live for several decades when properly cared for, with some specimens known to live for over 100 years.
How to grow ponytail palm
Grow ponytail palm in a free-draining house plant compost in bright, indirect light. Water sparingly and allow the compost to dry out completely between waterings.
Where to grow a ponytail palm
Grow ponytail palm in a free-draining house plant compost in bright, indirect light, such as near a north-facing window or set back from a south or west-facing window.
How to plant a ponytail palm
Select a pot that is slightly larger than the root ball. Fill the bottom with a layer of compost, place the plant in the centre, and fill in the remaining space with compost, gently firming it around the roots. Avoid burying the trunk too deeply, the swollen base should remain partially exposed for aesthetic purposes. Water thoroughly after planting and allow the top inch of compost to dry out before watering again.
How to care for a ponytail palm
Caring for a ponytail palm is relatively easy. Water it sparingly, as it’s highly susceptible to overwatering. Allow the compost to dry out between waterings and be cautious not to let the plant sit in standing water. In winter, reduce watering further, as the plant goes into a period of dormancy and requires less moisture.
It is normal for older leaves to turn brown and dry out, especially the tips. You can trim these brown tips if you prefer a neater appearance, but it is not necessary for the plant’s health. Brown tips usually occur due to environmental factors such as low humidity or overwatering.
How to prune a ponytail palm
Ponytail palms do not require pruning. However, you can remove dead or yellowing leaves to maintain its appearance. The best time to do this is in spring or early summer when the plant is actively growing. Use clean and sharp pruning shears to make clean cuts and remember to wear gloves as some parts of its leaves can be sharp.
How to propagate a ponytail palm
Propagate ponytail palm from offshoots or ‘pups’, which develop at the base of the plant. In spring, carefully remove pups from the parent plant, ensuring they have some roots attached. Plant them up in separate pots with free-draining compost and treat it as you would a mature ponytail palm.
Pests and diseases
Common pests include red spider mites, scale insects and mealybugs. The first two of these thrive in dry environments so mist the leaves regularly or stand the pot on a tray of moist pebbles to increase humidity. Mealybugs can be picked off by hand, or large infestations can be treated with insecticidal soap.