Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
I love weird looking plants. One of my favorites is the ponytail palm which is also known as the bottle palm because of the unique shape of the trunk.
What is a Ponytail Palm?
Ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata) are not actually palm trees. They are related to agaves. They are native to eastern Mexico and hardy in US growing zones 10 and 11.
Ponytail palms are single stem trees characterized by the unusual shape of their trunks. The bases are swollen. The swelling is called a caudex. This where they store water when the season is dry. The gray cracked bark is reminiscent of elephant skin which gives it its other nickname, elephant’s foot tree.
The leaves are all at the top of the stem, growing out of it like a ponytail. When grown outdoors, the leaves can be as long as 6 feet while indoors, they are usually only 3 feet long.
Outdoors, the trees can grow to 30 feet tall although in most landscapes they rarely grow more than 10 feet tall. When grown indoors in a container, the trees usually only grow to about 10 feet tall. Their height can be controlled by the size of the container in which they are grown.
How to Grow a Ponytail Palm Outdoors
If you are fortunate enough to live in zone 10 or 11, you can use ponytail palm in your landscape. They like full sun and well-drained soil. You only need to fertilize them twice a year, in the spring and summer. Use a fertilizer that is suitable for cacti and succulents. If the trees get tall enough, or bloom, they can develop branches.
The trees only bloom when grown outdoors. This is because they need to attain a certain age and size before flowering. The trees need to be at least 10 years old and more than 10 feet tall. They are dioecious which means that there are male plants and female plants. The females are the ones with the flowers. They grow in panicles which are upright clusters. The flowers are white or pink. Once your tree blooms, it will bloom every year. To produce viable seeds, you will need both a male tree and a female tree. The male tree produces the pollen needed to fertilize the flowers of the females.
How to Grow a Ponytail Palm Indoors
Most gardeners grow their ponytail palms in a container indoors. They are great houseplants as long as you don’t overwater them. You should grow your tree in a container that is only 1 inch wider than the base of the stem. Because they are trees, they grow very slowly. You will only need to repot every other year into a pot that is 1 inch wider. You can keep your tree small by not repotting it. If you leave it in a small pot, it will remain small. Use potting soil that is suitable for cacti and succulents.
Place your tree in a sunny room, preferably that faces south. Resist the urge to water frequently. You should only water your tree when the top inch of the soil is dry. In most homes, that will be every 2 to 3 weeks.
You can move your tree outdoors during the summer after the nighttime temperatures stay above 55⁰F. In the fall, bring it indoors when nighttime temperatures fall below 55⁰F.
There is no need to prune ponytail palms unless you want more than one stem. In that case, you can cut off the top. The tree will respond by growing two or more new stems from the top where you cut it.
How to Propagate Ponytail Palms Using Offsets
Occasionally a ponytail palm will develop what is called an offset. An offset is a baby plant that is attached to the base of the parent plant. You can separate this offset from the base of your tree when it is 4 inches tall. At this point, it should have developed a small root system of its own. Carefully break it off from the parent and then set it aside for a few days to allow it to “callous”. To “callous” a plant is to allow the wound caused by the separation to heal before planting. This prevents insects or disease from infesting the plant.
Fill a small container with potting soil that is suitable for cacti and succulents. If your offset does not already have its own roots, you can dip the base into rooting hormone. Plant your offset so that no part of the base is covered with soil. This will cause it to rot. Water sparingly as you would an adult tree.
How to Grow A Ponytail Palm From Seed
If you are fortunate enough to obtain ponytail palm seeds, you can grow them into trees. The seed coats are very hard so you will need to gently rub one side with a file to weaken it. You don’t want to file all the way through. That would damage the seedling. Then soak your seeds for 24 hours to further soften the seed coat.
Fill a container with potting soil that is suitable for cacti and succulents. Moisten it and then plant your seeds 1/8 inch deep. Cover the container with a plastic bag and set the container on a heat mat set to 70⁰F. Place everything in a sunny window. Keep an eye on your soil. Mist it whenever it becomes dry.
Germination should occur in 1 to 2 months. Once the seeds have germinated, remove the plastic bag and heat mat. If you live north of zone 10, you can move your seedlings outdoors once the springtime nighttime temperatures remain above 55⁰F. Be sure to bring them indoors in the fall when the nighttime temperatures fall below 55⁰F.
Questions & Answers
Question: After I have harvested a piece from a female ponytail plant how long do they last before I need to plant them?
Answer: I'm not sure what you mean by "harvested". If you mean that you have separated an offset from the parent plant, you should wait 2-3 days before planting it. This allows the wound to callous over. If you are transplanting a mature ponytail palm, you need to plant it right away. I would not wait any longer than 24 hours. Be sure to keep the roots moist. If they dry out, they will die and your tree will die.
© 2019 Caren White
Frances Kildey. on April 15, 2020: