Beaucarnea recurvata: Successfully grow the palm that’s not a palm

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Written By Martin Cole

Plantsman, gardener, plant-obsessive

beaucarnea recurvata

Beaucarnea recurvata, commonly known as the Ponytail Palm, is a distinctive and currently pretty trendy house plant.

As you can see from the pictures, it has an interesting swollen lower trunk for storing water and long, cascading leaves resembling a ponytail, which give it its common name. It looks great as a stand-alone feature or in a group to add some exotic flair to your home.

This tough plant falls into the Easy care category and is is well-suited for beginners. It can handle s irregular watering, it doesn’t require frequent fertilisation, and it’s not particularly susceptible to pests and diseases. What’s not to like?

Beaucarnea recurvata quick care guide

  • Light: Bright, indirect light. Some direct sun is okay.
  • Water: Allow soil to dry between watering
  • Humidity: Low to average home humidity. Misting is not required.
  • Temperature: 60°F to 80°F (15°C to 27°C), minimum of 50°F (10°C) in winter
  • Potting soil: Well-draining cactus or succulent mix
  • Fertiliser: Balanced, water-soluble fertiliser twice a year
  • Propagation: Seed, offset division
  • Repotting: Every 2-3 years or when pot-bound. Best done in Spring
  • Pruning: Minimal, to remove dead or damaged leaves

All about Beaucarnea recurvata

Beaucarnea recurvata is known as the Elephant’s Foot Palm, as well as the Ponytail Palm. So, while its foliage resembles a ponytail its sturdy, rough-textured trunk, is said to look like an elephant’s lower limb.

This unusual plant is in the agave family and originates from Mexico’s southeastern dry scrublands.

Interestingly, and despite its name, it is not a palm at all but a succulent. And this is why it is so well adapted to conserving water within its thick trunk.

Beaucarnea recurvata
Beaucarnea recurvata

During dry spells, the trunk shrinks somewhat and the bark may appear slightly wrinkled as it empties its stored water. However, when the rains return (or it is watered by its owner), the plant acts like a sponge, swelling noticeably as it rehydrates.

While Beaucarnea recurvata is not tolerant of cold climates and can suffer root and trunk damage in soggy soil, it is otherwise pretty undemanding.

Indoors its growth is modest but a large ponytail palm can reach heights of up to 30 feet (10m) in the wild.

Beaucarnea recurvata key facts

  • Scientific name and any synonyms: Beaucarnea recurvata, synonym Nolina recurvata
  • Meaning of scientific plant name: “Recurvata” refers to the curved-back leaves.
  • Common names: Ponytail Palm, Bottle Palm, Elephant’s Foot
  • Plant family: Asparagaceae (formerly Agavaceae)
  • Origin: Eastern Mexico
  • Type of plant: Evergreen perennial
  • Size (indoor): Up to 6-8 feet (2 to 2.5m
  • Foliage: Long, thin, and curly leaves forming a dense crown
  • Flower: Cream to white blooms on mature plants, rarely seen indoors
  • Fruit: Insignificant; rarely produces fruit indoors
  • Toxicity: Non-toxic to pets and people (reference: ASPCA)

How to grow Beacarnea recurvata: the detailed guide

The secret to growing this plant is not to pamper it.

Where it It comes from the soils are thin and lacking in nutrients and the rain is sporadic. So, it doesn’t need a huge amount of attention from you to stay healthy.

In fact, the biggest threat to its health will come if you give it too much water or over-feed it.

You can read more about caring for your house plants generally in our comprehensive guide to the 7 critical requirements of house plant care.

Beaucarnea recurvata
Because it is tough, you can place Beaucarnea recurvata outside in the summer months

Light

Beaucarnea recurvata thrives in bright, indirect sunlight.

Hot direct sunlight can scorch its leaves, while too little light, especially during the growing season, can weaken the plant.

However, this is one of those tough plants that you can risk standing outside in the summer. In fact, if plants could speak, it may well thank you if you do. Just make sure it is shaded from very strong afternoon sun.

House plant bright light
Beaucarnea recurvata: ideal location for optimum light

Soil and feeding

Use a well-draining mix designed for cacti or succulents.

A good mix you could make yourself would combine three parts of a standard potting mix with two parts perlite or coarse sand.

Feed with a balanced fertiliser in spring and summer – at half strength to avoid leaf burn. Do not fertilise in autumn/fall and winter when the plant’s growth is dormant.

Watering

Water deeply, allowing the soil to dry out between watering sessions.

As mentioned, the trunk of the Ponytail Palm functions as a reservoir, storing water for periods of drought. This adaptation makes the plant particularly forgiving if you forget to water it once in a while.

When you do water, allow all the water to drain through and don’t allow it to sit in water in the external pot or tray. Water sparingly in winter.

Pruning

Pruning is beaucarnea recurvata is straightforward. Cut away any dead or damaged leaves at the base to maintain the plant’s appearance and health.

Propagation

Propagate using seeds or by separating offsets. The best time for propagation is during the warmer months.

Propagating from Offsets

Beaucarnea recurvata tends to grow offset of pups, as in the picture at the top of the page.

When these are young they can be detached to propagate a new plant.

However, if you wait too long they develop a bulbous lower trunk of their own which begins to fuse with the swollen part of the main plant. When this happens, detaching the offsets can damage the plants. So don’t wait too long to ‘harvest’ your offsets.

Here, in brief, is how to propagate Beaucarnea recurvata by offsets:

  1. Wait for the Right Time: Early summer is ideal for propagation when the plant is actively growing.
  2. Remove Offsets: Carefully remove the offsets that grow at the base of the plant. Cut down with a sharp knife. Ensure you get a healthy chunk of roots.
  3. Rooting: Plant the offsets in a well-draining cactus mix. Water them in to bind the soil to the roots, but watering sparingly after until new roots form.
  4. Transition to Regular Care: Once established, care for them as you would a mature plant.

Propagating from Seeds

Propagating by seed is also possible, but the plant is relatively slow growing, so you need to be the patient type if you take this approach. Here is how to do it:

  1. Seed Sowing: Plant seeds in a well-draining soil mix and lightly cover with soil.
  2. Germination: Keep the soil moist and warm in a heated propagator until germination occurs.
  3. Care for Seedlings: Once seedlings appear, care for them with minimal water and bright light.

Common Problems and Solutions

As we’ve seen, Beaucarnea recurvata is a tough plant from a pretty unforgiving natural habitat, so it is relatively trouble free. But here are some problems to look out for.

Beaucarnea recurvata troubleshooting guide

Leaves and shoots

  • Brown Leaf Tips: Caused by over-fertilisation or severe lack of water. Feed less or water more.
  • Drooping Leaves: Usually a sign of over-watering. Allow the soil to dry out more between waterings.

Roots

  • Root Rot: This occurs from constant over-watering. This is likely to be your biggest problem if you are too liberal with your watering regime. You may need to repot into fresh soil and trim away any black or mushy roots.

Pests

  • Spider Mites: These create fine webs and can be combated with increased humidity or insecticidal soap.
  • Scale Insects: Appearing as small bumps on the plant, treat them by wiping with alcohol or using neem oil.

Winter care

In winter, reduce watering and stop fertilising. Ensure the plant is kept away from cold drafts and has sufficient light.

Read more about how to overwinter your house plants here.

Buy Beaucarnea recurvata

So, if you’ve got this far and are feeling like you can’t resist this beautiful plant, I’ve listed some buying options below, depending on whether you are US or UK based.

The buy links are affiliate links, which means I’d be paid a (very) small commission if you go on and buy after clicking these links. But that does not affect the price you pay.

Beaucarnea recurvata

US Buyers

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Beaucarnea recurvata

Uk Buyers

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Beaucarnea recurvata: Frequently asked questions

1. Can I use regular potting soil?

It is best to use a succulent mix for better drainage. Alternatively, create a free draining mix of your own with grit or perlite.

2. How often should I water my Ponytail Palm in winter?

Water sparingly, only when the soil is dry to the touch two inches below the surface.

3. Does the Ponytail Palm bloom indoors?

It’s rare for Beaucarnea recurvata to bloom indoors.

4. Can I plant my Ponytail Palm outside?

Yes, if you live in a frost free climate. But even if you don’t, you can move the plant outdoors in Summer.

Other great palms

Read our guide to the 16 best indoor palms to grow and our individual guides to caring for these other indoor palms:

Key references and resources

Alloway, Z and Bailey (F). (2018) RHS Practical House Plant Book: Choose The Best, Display Creatively, Nurture and Care, Royal Horticultural Society, UK.

Camilleri,L and Kaplan, S. (2020), Plantopedia: The Definitive Guide to Houseplants, Smith Street Books.

Hessayon, Dr D.G. (1991) The New House Plant Expert, PBI Publications, UK.

Brickell, C. (2016). Royal Horticultural Society AZ encyclopedia of garden plants. 4th Edition Dorling Kindersley.

Squire, D. (2017). Houseplant Handbook: Basic Growing Techniques and a Directory of 300 Everyday Houseplants, Companion House Books.

Nelson, G (2021). Plant – House plants: Choosing, Styling, Caring. Mitchell Beazley. London

Brickell, C. (2011). American horticultural society encyclopedia of plants and flowers. Penguin.

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