If you're attracted to succulents and like odd-shaped plants, don't overlook the ponytail palm plant (Beaucarnea recurvata), an especially interesting specimen plant. Sometimes called the bottle palm or elephant-foot tree, this plant is quite slow-growing. It can be an effective container plant outdoors that's adaptable to overwintering indoors. It also grows outdoors year-round in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9 through 12.
The ponytail palm is not a true palm, but gets its name from its palm-like leaves that are up to 5 feet long and strap-like, arching and drooping from its top. The leaves originate as a rosette from the central stem, or trunk, which is thick and swollen and can become flask-shaped with a broad, water-retaining base. The ponytail palm grows especially slowly when grown in cultivation, usually reaching a height of 6 to 10 feet after many years. In its native semi-arid habitat, it can eventually become extra-tall, up to 30 feet in height.
2. Changes with Age
When grown outdoors year-round, the ponytail palm grows slowly but continuously and can reach an advanced age if given ideal conditions. As it ages, its base becomes more swollen and enlarged, eventually taking on the shape of an elephant's foot. Over time, an older specimen may develop a trunk that's up to 10 feet in diameter. As it grows, the plant also develops some side branches, which originate from its central trunk and give rise to additional leafy rosettes that droop toward its base.
3. Container Growing
In areas with cold winters, a ponytail palm can be grown in a large container outdoors, then moved indoors during the colder months. Because of its slow growth rate, it can remain a manageable size for many years. When moving a plant outdoors at winter's end, prevent scorching of its leaves by exposing it gradually to the increased outdoor light, adding an hour or two each day. The ponytail palm also grows well as a houseplant year-round, usually becoming only 6 or 8 feet tall. Whether container-grown indoors or outdoors, it needs occasional repotting into a larger container when its trunk enlarges in diameter.
The ponytail palm prefers an outdoor spot that gets full sun, although it can tolerate a few hours of partial shade each day. When grown indoors during winter, the best spot is one in an east- or south-facing window that gets lots of sun, but protect the plant from cold winter drafts. This plant needs excellent drainage and does best in soil that's rich in sand. It tolerates drought especially well and should be watered only when the top few inches of soil are dry to the touch. When overwintered indoors, reduce watering even further to give the plant a rest.