Photo: Thejoyofplants.co.uk, styling by Elize Eveleens, Klimprodukties
Maybe you know this plant under the name ponytail palm for its long, ribbonlike, twisting leaves or perhaps elephant’s foot (or elephant-foot) because of its swollen base. I prefer simply beaucarnea, from its botanical name Beaucarnea recurvata (formerly Nolina recurvata). Whatever you call it, though, it’s fantastic to look at, easy to care for and tough as old boots. A beaucarnea doesn’t ask for much, but gives plenty in return.
The beaucarnea gets its name from Jean-Baptiste Beaucarne, a 19th-century Belgian plant collector, the first European to see the plant in bloom.
Although the beaucarnea is often mistaken for a palm (Araceae), it’s actually a succulent member of the Asparagus family (Asparagaceae). The beaucarnea is native to the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz and San Luis Potosi in eastern Mexico, where it can eventually grow into a tree 30 feet (10 m high) with a base up to 3 feet (1 m) across. It has a healthy lust for life: there are beaucarneas in Mexico that are 350 years old! Although it rarely grows taller than 5 feet (1.5 m) indoors, it still makes for an impressive indoor tree.
You would have a hard time telling a beaucarnea from a grass plant when it first germinates: it has the same narrow, linear, mid-green leaves. But within a few months, it starts to form a thick bulbous, pale grayish brown, woody-looking base. This is called a caudex and it serves to store water for times of drought, as this succulent plant grows in very arid conditions in the wild, with a dry season often lasting 7 to 8 months. The caudex remains bulb-shaped for years, but eventually becomes a thick, woody trunk that tapers to a narrower stem as it grows, lifting the crown higher into the air, eventually it giving a palmlike appearance above and an elephant’s foot look at the base.
The trunk is normally solitary and never branches on its own, at least not indoors. However, you can force it to branch… More on that below under Culture.
Leaves also lengthen over time. They’re upright at first, then arch out and downwards. They vary in length on mature specimens from 3 to 6 feet (90 cm to 180 cm). Sometimes they’re longer than the trunk is high, so the plant may appear more interesting when placed on a pedestal. As to curving of the leaves (the meaning of recurvata), they may twist slightly or massively: that will depend on the genetics of the plant you purchase.
When it comes to flowers, though, forget it. A beaucarnea almost never blooms indoors and when it does, only on very old specimens, as in botanical garden greenhouses, forming huge panicles of tiny white flowers.
You can find this plant in garden centers at all stages of growth. Sometimes, it’s just a young plant with a round bulbous base and a few arching leaves. Or it may be much larger, with a swollen foot, thick stem and a single crown. You can also find it planted 2 or 3 to a pot. Other specimens have had their top chopped off and produce multiple crowns, each on its own thickened branch.
Occasionally, you may find a specimen with variegated leaves, each with a band of creamy white to yellow along either edge. Such a plant can be expensive and will likely be a bit fragile under less-than-perfect conditions: give it full sun indoors. There appears to be more than one variegated clone with various names as B. recurvata variegata, B. recurvata ‘Gold Star’ or similar.
There is also a related plant on the market that masquerades under the name Beaucarnea recurvata: Guatemala beaucarnea (B. guatemalensis). The two are very hard to tell apart, but many plants sold today actually belong to the latter species, as it is faster growing and therefore more profitable to produce. One way to distinguish between them is that the foliage of B. guatemalensis will usually take on a reddish tinge if grown outdoors in full sun. If bought with reddish leaves (it may then be sold as red ponytail, B. recurvata ‘Red’ or B. guatemalensis ‘Guatemalan Red’), the color is usually soon lost when the plant is grown indoors under the necessarily weaker light found there. Some of the variegated clones probably belong under this species name.
This is one slow-growing houseplant! If you want a large specimen as an indoor tree, buy one of that size: a seedling can easily take 30 years to reach treelike dimensions indoors!
For a plant that grows in full desert sun, the beaucarnea is surprisingly tolerant of moderate light, even low light, although in the latter case, it will likely decline over time. However, for good growth, intense light is required, with as much full sun as you can give it. It truly thrives outdoors over the summer, although you’ll have to reacclimatize it gradually to full outdoor sun each spring.
Water your beaucarnea regularly during the spring and summer, although letting the soil dry out between waterings. Fertilize it fairly generously at that season as well, with the fertilizer of your choice (it’s not picky). During the fall and winter, start allowing it to dry out thoroughly between waterings so as to prevent rot. It may, at that season, only need watering every 3 or 4 weeks, even less if you grow it at cool temperatures.
💡Helpful Hint: If you have to travel for an extended period, you can actually just leave and not not worry about watering your beaucarnea for months on end. Although it will be rather parched upon your return, it will nevertheless recuperate.
The beaucarnea tolerates both hot and cold indoor temperatures and, outdoors, can theoretically take a few degrees frost if the cold doesn’t last long. Ideally, though, keep it above 50˚F (10˚C) at all times.
It is not bothered by dry indoor air.
Repot as needed into any well-draining potting soil, such as cactus mix, but ordinary potting mix is also fine.
Do make sure that the leaves can hang freely, because contact with a wall, cupboard or curtain can cause them to turn brown. If this does happen, you can just clip off the ends. As for grooming, older leaves eventually turn brown and readily come loose when you pull on them.
For fastest growth, give your beaucarnea full sun, regular fertilizing and generous watering from spring through summer, plus repot regularly, every two years, into a larger pot. However, if you like your plant’s current size, you can slow it down considerably by doing pretty much the opposite: fertilizing little if at tall and watering very rarely. Underpotting, especially, will largely stop it in its tracks. Some people use underpotting to to maintain beaucarneas in small asiatic pots as bonsai specimens.
Branching can be induced by pruning, although given this plant’s extremely slow growth, it can be very intimidating to chop off its one and only crown. Don’t worry! After a few months, new growth will sprout and there will almost always be multiple stems: sometimes 6 or more! It will look a bit bare for a year or two, then really quite nice as the numerous leaf tufts fill in. You can cut it high or low: it will always resprout from dormant buds just below the cut.
In tropical climates, the beaucarnea will grow outdoors year around. Excellent drainage will be vital in climates with a prolonged rainy season and it adapts to even the poorest, stoniest soils. Full sun will give the best and fastest results and can even result, many years on, in flowers being produced. It will grow attractively in partial shade as well, though it may not bloom there.
In the unlikely case you lose a beaucarnea, it will likely be due to low light or overwatering. It simply can’t take low light forever and will eventually produce weak, pale green, etiolated leaves and may then slip into a decline it won’t recover from.
Overwatering can lead to uncurable rot, in which case the decline is much faster. You just have to hold back on watering with this plant!
Mealybugs and scale insects are the mostly likely insect pests. Check plants before purchase and isolate newly purchased plants for a good 40 days before putting them near others. The pests on infested plants are almost impossible to eliminate: they can hide out in the leaf bases when no insecticide is likely to reach them. Unless, that is, you cut off the plant’s top so as to dispose of all green growth, then carefully clean the resulting stump in soapy water. That can work … sometimes.
Cats sometimes nibble on leaf tips, as they sometimes do to grass outdoors, but beaucarneas are nontoxic, harmless to pets and people. Still, for the plant’s sake, try to keep it out of their reach. Any damage can be neatly trimmed off.
This is probably not something you should consider unless you bought a pot with multiple plants you simply want to divide. Not that multiplying a beaucarnea isn’t doable, but the plant is just so frustratingly slow!
If you’re patient, you can take stem cuttings (let the cut end harden off in the open air for a few weeks before potting it up). Use a rooting hormone. Do not root in water.
Sometimes mature specimens produce offsets at the base that you can twist or cut free and pot up in the same way.
As for growing a beaucarnea from seed…
Your beaucarnea is not likely to bloom … and even if it did, the plant is dioecious (male and female flowers are produced on separate plants), so to produce seed, you’d need both a male and female plant in bloom at the same time, plus a pollinator: fat chance that will happen! If you want to grow one from seed, therefore, you’ll have to buy some.
Seed is available from several seed catalogues. It germinates in as few as 10 days or can take up to 3 months (germination is fastest in spring). Sow and grow the seeds indoors under about the same conditions as you would flower or vegetable seeds, although since beaucarnea seedlings are slower growing, they’ll need less frequent watering. Keep the seedlings just moist (but not wet) until you can see a caudex forming, then you can treat them like an adult plant.
The beaucarnea: slow but steady, nearly unkillable, and yet with a strikingly decorative effect. I think your home décor needs one!