Plant of the Week
Latin: Nolina (Beaucarnea) recurvata
Over the years houseplants have come and gone through my home.
My wife prefers the verdant look of lush, green foliage while I fancy the
oddities that nature serves up, especially desert plants. On one plant we both
agree, the Ponytail Palm (Nolina recurvata).
The ponytail palm, also known as Bottle Palm or Elephant Foot
Tree, is a member of the agave family and is native to southeastern Mexico. In
its native habitat it grows as a 30 tall tree and looks like an oddly branched
What makes ponytail palm stand out is its distended base which
can reach four feet across. The gray, swollen base flares up with the graceful
sweep of a piece of modern sculpture. The inflated trunk is for water storage
and will see the tree through extended periods of drought.
The leaves of ponytail palm are long, narrow and scratchy to the
touch, but without serrate margins. On landscape trees they can be as much as
six feet long but on houseplants usually are a third that length. Flowers are
produced in large white panicles but only occur on really old plants and then
only in tropical climes.
Since it was first described back in the mid 19th century,
botanists have had trouble deciding what to call this plant. Here in the US we
have mostly used the name Beaucarnea recurvata to describe it while in Europe
Nolina recruvata was preferred. So in the current
climate of botanical detente, we are migrating towards the
European use of Nolina. The genus name is after C. P. Nolin, a French
agricultural writer who coauthored a treatise on farming in 1755.
Ponytail palms are grown from seed which germinates readily with
no special treatment.
Given good growing conditions seedlings can produce two foot
tall stems with grapefruit size bases in a couple years. Under lower light
conditions it’s growth slows, but it will persist for years becoming more
impressive with each passing season.
Big pots ultimately produce big plants with big bases. But
because of ponytail palm’s aversion to over watering, pot size should be
As a houseplant ponytail palm is a godsend for the disorganized,
seeming to thrive on mistreatment that would kill most houseplants. The tip
browning seen on leaves can be caused by too dry conditions, too much fertilizer
or high a fluoride content in the soil. Trimming off the burned tips tidy’s the
This is a desert plant adapted to bright light conditions, so it
should receive as much light as possible inside the home. But, it has a
forgiving soul and will tolerate six months of low light conditions without
flinching. If light conditions are poor during the winter months, a vacation
outdoors to the patio will insure new growth each season. Fertilizing monthly
during these summer vacations will be of benefit.
The usual houseplant pests - scale and mealybugs - can attack ponytail palms
but it does not seem to be their first choice when selecting a plant to attack.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension News -
March 29, 2002
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.
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