Ponytail palm: care, propagation & pests


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The ponytail palm – also known as elephant’s foot – has a remarkable growth habit. Here you will learn everything you need to know about the plant.

Ponytail palm
As the leaf curl disease progresses, affected leaves turn darker [Photo: Andrii Spy_k/ Shutterstock.com]

The ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) is also called elephant’s foot – and for good reason: With its thick trunk tapering upward, actually looks like the stompers of the docile savanna animals. But not only this unusual appearance makes it a popular houseplant. The trunk holds unimagined storage capacities that give the ponytail palm an incredibly high adaptability and resilience. This makes it the ideal plant for budding indoor botanists, although, a healthy, pretty elephant’s foot does need a few things to be happy.

Ponytail palm: origin and characteristics

The elephant’s foot plant is native to only one state in Mexico where the succulent tree grows in dry, tropical forests and reaches heights of up to 9 metres. As an indoor plant it can reach up to 1.5 metres in height, although it takes a very long time to achieve such a size because the tree grows very slowly. Here is some information about this unusual and yet undemanding indoor tree:

  • Latin name: Beaucarnea recurvata
  • Common names: Elephant’s foot, ponytail palm
  • Genus Beaucarnea
  • Family: Dracaenaceae
  • Age: Until 100 years
  • Leaves: Slender; up to 50 cm long
  • Flowers: ovate to paniculate; white inflorescence
  • Trunk stores water and nutrients
ponytail palm in the wild
Ponytail palms grow natively in only one state in Mexico [Photo: Maarten Zeehandelaar/ Shutterstock.com]

As with the dragon tree, the sprouting leaves die from the bottom up over time. Only the shoot ends are leafy. When grown as a houseplant, flowers are formed very rarely. Always place a ponytail palm out of reach of small children and pets because it is poisonous.

Propagating ponytail palms: is it possible?

This exotic plant can be propagated by you at your whim. Older specimens may develop side shoots in the leaf axils. These can be used for seedling propagation. Cut the side shoots with a clean knife and put them in a growing pot with a sand/peat mixture. Then, in a comfortably warm place, protected from light, the cutting will also soon take root. Make sure the soil temperature and humidity are constant. To ensure humidity, put a foil hood over the growing pot. Unfortunately, the growth of cuttings often does not correspond to the desired typical appearance of a ponytail palm, which is why the most popular option is usually to grow them from seed. Although the self-production of the seeds turns out to be rather a special case because of the rare flowering, you can also buy the seeds online. When growing from seed, the procedure is as follows:

  • Soak seeds in lukewarm water for a few hours
  • Fill seed tray with sand/clay mixture
  • Sow seeds on the soil and cover lightly with soil (light germination)
  • Water lightly
  • Location: Bright and warm; up to 25 °C
  • Use foil hood
  • Keep substrate constantly moist
  • Germination time: Several weeks

Ideally, a heat mat is placed under the growing tray so that the soil temperature remains constantly high. After the formation of the first leaves, enough roots will have formed. The mini elephant’s foot can now be transferred to a larger container. Find out what you can do to sweeten the summer for your elephant’s foot and how to get it through the winter in our article on caring for ponytail palm.

Ponytail palm care

To make the elephant’s foot feel at home with you, it is necessary to bring Mexico into the living room at home. You do not have to wear sombreros, but you do have to provide plenty of light and warmth. However, the blazing summer midday sun quickly leads to sunburn. Drafts are also not tolerated – otherwise the ponytail palm quickly becomes an ice foot. Therefore, a nice place by a west/east-facing window is ideal. So that the stem grows nice and straight in a window place, the pot should occasionally be turned a quarter turn.

elephant's foot with lush leaves
Vigorous green leaves are a sign of a healthy elephant’s foot plant [Photo: Renata.Ka/ Shutterstock.com]

Watering elephant’s foot trees

The thickened trunk is used to store water to protect against long dry periods in its native Mexico. As an indoor plant, this offers the advantage that the ponytail palm tree rarely needs to be watered. So, especially in spring and autumn, the tree will not begrudge you if it is sometimes forgotten. Even hard watering water is tolerated. In winter it should be given only small amounts of water, if necessary. In the summer it should be watered regularly and thoroughly, but only when the substrate is completely dry.


The trunk not only stores water but also nutrients. Therefore, even during the growth phase you should fertilise only moderately. During this period, fertilise every four weeks with cactus fertiliser in the water. Alternatively, green plant fertiliser can be used at half the concentration. Whether you use cactus or green plant fertiliser, it is generally advisable to opt for a natural fertiliser because the nutrients it contains are released over a longer period of time. This reduces the risk of over fertilisation. After repotting, do not fertilise for the next eight weeks, as the new substrate will provide sufficient nutrients.

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Liquid Houseplant Food, 800ml
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Repotting ponytail palms

Because of its slow growth, the ponytail palm does not need to be repotted often. Only when the trunk is the same circumference as the pot or the root ball is pushed out of the pot does this leisurely plant need a new home. This is the case approximately every three to five years.

elephant's foot near window
A bright location without direct sunlight is optimal for the beautiful beaucarnea recurvata [Photo: Renata.Ka/ Shutterstock.com]

Summary: Ponytail palm care

  • Bright and warm; east / west-facing window; no drafts
  • Water: When the substrate has completely dried out
  • Fertilise: In the growth phase every four weeks with cactus fertiliser, half dose of green plant fertiliser
  • Repot every three to five years

When and how should elephant’s foot trees be pruned?

The leaves of the ponytail palm can grow over a metre long. The first thought that comes to mind is to take out the scissors and cut the leaves to the desired length, but, unfortunately, pruning leaves the leaves with unsightly brown tips. The temptation to remove them again is great. The vicious circle that has been set in motion then usually ends in a short-leaf hairstyle, much to the chagrin of the houseplant owner. It is preferable to simple cut off the shoots completely to make room for new ones.

Pruning pruning ponytail palms: When is the right time?

Pruning is best done at the beginning of the growing season in the spring.

What is the right way to prune the houseplant?

The trunk is cut with a clean and sharp knife at any height above the foot. The cut surface is then disinfected and sealed. Sealing the wound with wax serves to protect against drying out. Soon your elephant’s foot will resprout from the side of the cut. Usually two to three shoots are formed.

Potted elephant's foot plant
It is important to prune the ponytail palm the correct way [Photo: jackbolla/ Shutterstock.com]

Ponytail palm: diseases and brown leaves

A properly cared for elephant’s foot in spite of diseases and pests, but if the tree is placed incorrectly or not properly watered, the exotic plant becomes ill quickly.

The most common diseases

A few diseases and pests are particularly common with improper care:

Mould and rot (fungal infection)

  • Symptoms: Yellow, soft young leaves
  • Because: Too much watering
  • Countermeasure: remove damaged roots; repot in dry soil; water less


  • Symptoms: White streak; small animals covered with a white waxy layer on the underside of leaves and leaf axils
  • Because: Introduced by other plants or during purchase
  • Remove infested leaves; isolate plant; treat other plants with lye solution (precaution)

Spider mite, scale insect

  • Symptoms: Spun webs; spots or deformities on leaves that look like cotton balls
  • Because: Low humidity
  • Scrape off infested leaves with a knife and cool shower; higher humidity
Ponytail palm leaves with black spots
In winter, elephant’s foot is particularly susceptible to diseases and pests [Photo: DSGNSR1/ Shutterstock.com]

Ponytail palm: why do the tips of the leaves turn brown?

The lower leaves after some time naturally turn brown. You need to pay attention only when not as many new leaves grow back as old ones fall off. There are many reasons for this:

  • Cutting back the leaves
  • Too frequent watering; waterlogging
  • Sunburn due to excessive exposure to the sun
  • Winter: Too much heated air; low humidity; too warm; lack of light; not enough watering
  • Leaves bump against floor/walls
  • Too few nutrients due to a pot that is too small
  • Temperatures that are too cold

Proper care is essential to prevent the leaves from turning brown in the first place. Here you will find everything you need to know about the correct care of elephant foot and what can be done in an emergency if the leaves turn brown.