Unique Elephant Palm


Unique Elephant Palm             

 Tara A. Spears


When I lived in a colder climate I had a fav houseplant called elephant palm (or ponytail palm but it’s the same species, Beaucarnea recurvata.) Then I moved to the subtropics in south Florida and took it out of the pot to plant outdoors. Wow! I had no idea the plant got that big. In a frost-free climate, such as south Florida or western coastal Mexico, this plant gets huge! Look closely at the bark in the second photo: you can see how the plant gets common name. Native to the desert of Mexico it is somewhat of a curious landscaping plant or placed outdoors on the patio. I like the elephant palm for its forgiving nature if neglected and its unique shape that is a great conversation starter.

Even if you have a black thumb- the ability to kill a plant- the elephant palm can last. The care instructions for ponytail palm are relatively short. Because ponytail palm requires dry soil, it is best to let them get root bound before repotting. When you do repot them, use a pot that is only an inch or two wider than the previous pot. If you repot them into a significantly larger pot, they can get too much water at once, which can damage their growth and health. If you are growing the elephant palm as a houseplant in a pot, you should let the soil dry out in between waterings.


When placing the elephant palm directly into the ground, care must be taken to pick a full sun location that drains well during the rainy season. The elephant palm will tolerate bright light under another palm though. Since this plant is a succulent, it grows best in semi-dry conditions. The Jaltemba Bay with its typical seven months of no rain is a good choice as long as you make sure that the soil you plant the palm in has a high sand content and good drainage. Ponytail palms only need to be fertilized two times per year.

In a very young elephant palm the trunk looks like an enlarged onion bulb with ribbon-like leaves emerging at its top curling downward. As the plant matures, the trunk becomes thicker and its base gets swollen until it looks more like a bottle or an elephant’s foot.

The plant can have several branches towards the top as it grows over the years. When grown outdoors, Ponytail Palms can reach a height of up to 16 feet (5 meters) or more. They do produce flower stalks, consisting of clusters of small beige blossoms, when grown outdoors.

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Usually low-maintenance, drought- and disease-resistant, elephant palm occasionally attracts leaf-feeding bugs. However, elephant palm can get cottony mealy bugs and scale. Soft, segmented mealybugs protect themselves beneath layers of waxy filaments. The leaf-piercing, sap-sucking insects resemble mounds of cotton wool. While yellowing and weakening the pony tail plant, they drench it with their gooey, sweet waste. This honeydew lures airborne sooty mold spores that spread into black fungal layers, possibly interfering with photosynthesis and stunting growth. (The negative effect of mealy bug and scale are the same on other types of plants as well.)    palm-7                  

Another pest that can harm elephant palms are shell-covered scale insects. Adult scale insects do a much better job of camouflaging themselves than their mealybug relatives. These immobile insects feed and bear their young beneath hard, waxy protective shells easily mistaken for natural grayish, brown or black growths on a pony tail plant. Like mealy bugs, they survive by draining your plant’s phloem sap. Some varieties also produce honeydew. The consequences of an untreated scale infestation include wilting, yellowing or prematurely dropping leaves.palm-8

According to Homeguides, the best way to deal with infestations is to fight bugs with bugs. “Bugs infesting an outdoor pony tail plant must contend with natural predators. Green or brown lacewings, ladybugs and parasitic wasps are a few beneficial insects that feed on mealybugs, scales and spider mites. To attract them to your yard, plant shallow-flowered, nectar- or pollen-producing plants such as annual cosmos (Cosmos spp.) and perennial blanketflowers (Gaillardia spp.) and coneflowers.”

Another method to dealing with unwanted bugs is to use environmentally friendly soaps. Spray a well-watered pony tail plants with ready-to-use insecticidal soap. Complete coverage is essential because the soap works by suffocating the bugs.

Elephant palm is very easy to care for and growing elephant palm as a houseplant is a great way to add a stunning and visually interesting plant to almost any room. Or, plop it in your Mexican garden and enjoy the rustle of the tropic breeze through its leaves when you’re in your seasonal home. If you like things that are different, this plant is perfect for you.

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