Ponytail Palm Bonsai Care Guide
Beaucarnea recurvata is a broadleaf evergreen native to dry, semi-desert regions of Mexico, Belize, and the southern United States. In ideal conditions in these native locations the plant may grow to 30 feet, but as a container plant stays closer to 6-8 feet. This popular houseplant is not actually a palm, and the matter of its family classification has been an issue of some confusion over the years. It has been classified at one time or another in the Agavaceae, Nolinaceae, and Ruscaceae families. Whatever the case of its true identity, it is also called the Bottle Palm and Elephant's Foot due to its unique stem.
The stem is what makes this plant truly unique – it is bulbous at the bottom (to retain water) and slender as it goes up. The surface is gray and rough, developing furrows and cracks as it ages (adding to its resemblance to an elephant's skin). The long, green fronds burst out of the top and branches in a fountain-like habit, and can become as long as six feet. The leaves are serrated along the edges with little points that are sharp enough to break skin. The plant rarely flowers as a container plant. When older plants do bloom, the flowers are creamy white and appear in clusters.
The Ponytail Palm is able to survive hot outdoor weather very well, which means it is also able to withstand the heat indoors in winter. If kept as an outdoor bonsai in temperate climates, it should be brought indoors when the temperature dips below 55° F. This plant likes bright light, preferably full sun but indirect bright light indoors will do as well. Drafts or vents may dry the leaves out so be careful with indoor placement.
The beauty of the Ponytail Palm is its ability to store water, almost like a camel. Its trunk can hold enough water to last up to four weeks. Watering every two weeks is usually a safe bet but keep an eye on the plant to develop the proper schedule for your environmental conditions. When in doubt, wait another week to water. If the foliage begins to yellow, this is a sign of watering too often. Brown, dry leaves, shriveling of the stem, or desiccated roots mean that the tree is under-watered. A good rule of thumb is to check the soil surface – if it's damp, do not water. If it's dry, you can probably give the plant a drink.
Give a liquid fertilizer mixed at half strength, administered on a weekly schedule throughout the growing season and less frequently in winter. Alternatively you may use a pelleted slow-release formula such as Vita-Gro.
Because this is not a traditional bonsai, you will not perform the normal pruning, shaping, and wiring that you would on a normal tree. The benefit is that the plant is very easy to care for and maintain.
Pruning of this plant involves trimming the leaves a bit to keep it looking fresh, removing dead or dry foliage in the process. Cutting the top off will typically force foliage growth out the sides, giving the plant that signature ponytail look.
The stem will sometimes produce offsets. You may remove these to keep the tree compact and neat, or you can choose to let some of them grow in order to produce the coveted multi-trunk tree. Don't ever remove all growth at once.
Propagating Beaucarnea recurvata can be challenging. Cuttings may not take well, but you can try to harvest and root the offsets if you desire. Rooting hormone may help.
If your tree produces seeds or you can obtain them somewhere else, you can germinate them between moist paper towels. Do not allow them to dry out. In about two weeks the seeds should sprout; once the hulls fall off, use tweezers to move them to seedling trays and place in a sunny location. Spraying the soil with water will keep the fragile seedlings moist without disturbing the soil. Once they reach about two inches in height you can move them to potting soil.
This bonsai likes to be root-bound, so you should only repot if you want the tree to grow taller. If you do repot the Ponytail Palm, a ceramic pot is best, as these hearty plants have been known to break through plastic. Repotting should be carried out in spring or summer, using a soil mix with an ample ratio of sand to prevent root rot.
Insects/Pests & Disease
Although resistant to most disease, spider mites or scale can infest this bonsai. Scale appear as brownish bumps on foliage and must be removed by hand or with the tip of a sharp knife. Mites may be rinsed off with a spray of dish liquid soap and water, or you can spray the tree with neem oil. From our experience, 100% Neem Oil is the most effective.