A: Amazingly enough, the perfect (or nearly perfect) houseplant does exist. Meet the Ponytail Palm: not fussy, not buggy, and eternally good looking. Granted, I have yet to see flowers, but with all its good points, who cares about flowers?
While “Ponytail Palm” is the most widely used common name, you might also see these plants labeled as Elephant’s Foot, Monja, or Bottle Palm. This is a case where the botanical name (Beaucarnea recurvata) comes in very handy. At least that way we know which plant we’re talking about!
Ponytail Palms aren’t really palms, although you could say that a full-grown specimen, reaching 15 to 20 feet in height, looks a lot like a palm tree—if you think palm trees have strap-like leaves instead of fronds. The gray-tan trunk even has palm-like ridges where old leaves used to be attached. The trunk swells at the base; this allows the plant to store water, making it fairly drought-tolerant. Some specimens branch, either from the base or at the top, but my relatively small houseplant just has leaves sprouting from the top of the main stem. And, in spite of my experience, these plants do produce white flowers when they grow up.
Where they can grow outside, plants thrive in full sun. Indoors, I have mine in a brightly lit room, and it’s perfectly happy. Regular watering is good, as long as you don’t overwater (which can rot the trunk and turn the leaves yellow, then brown). It’s all right to let the soil dry between waterings. How often you water depends on the temperature and humidity in your home—when in doubt, err on the dry side.
In general, I treat my Ponytail Palms the same as the rest of my houseplants. I use a water-soluble fertilizer every time I water during the spring and summer, diluted to half strength. In fall and winter, when there’s less daylight, I let plants rest.
I actually have three individual palms, planted into one pot to give a fuller appearance. In the ten-plus years I’ve had them, I’ve moved them into larger pots only twice. I suppose if I gave them more room, they’d grow faster, but I prefer to keep them small. My house doesn’t have room for an indoor tree!
While some gardeners complain about mealy bugs, especially in hot, humid areas, I have had no problems whatsoever. One year, my other houseplants were succumbing to all sorts of pests, but this plant—placed right next to the infestation—sailed through unscathed. I had one lonely mealy bug that I simply wiped off, and that was all. I think the leaves are too tough for most sucking insect mouthparts.
Ponytail Palms may not be the most colorful houseplants, or even the most attractive. I like them for their unusual, avant garde appearance and anything goes attitude. Try one and see for yourself.
Article and photos by Leslie Holzmann, Certified Colorado Gardener.