The ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) is an unusual plant from the eastern portions of Mexico that can reach an outdoor height of 15’ feet and live for as long as 350 years.
However, you’re far more likely to grow this interesting plant indoors to avoid the hardiness zone restrictions.
The elephant foot plant is generally low-maintenance, but its name is the source of many a woe for newcomers.
The simple truth is that this plant isn’t a palm but, in reality, a succulent. This means it stores water to protect itself in drought conditions. It also means it’s easy to overwater this plant if you aren’t paying attention.
How To Save Overwatered Beaucarneas?
The good news is it’s pretty easy to save an overwatered ponytail palm if you catch it in time.
Even better, it’s quite easy to avoid overwatering in the future if you practice proper watering techniques.
Signs Of Overwatering
Unlike most plants, ponytail palms don’t give very many signs they’re in distress before rot has a chance to set in.
Thankfully, the few signs it does give can be pretty hard to miss.
The first sign might be some trunk swelling, but the second sign, which is a yellowing of its leaves, is a lot easier to spot.
The yellowed leaves will fall off if left untreated, denuding your plant.
At this point, action is paramount to avoid root or stem rot.
How Overwatering Happens?
The single most common cause of overwatering is the calendar method.
Plants, like people, don’t get thirsty on a schedule.
In fact, literally 97% to 99% percent of the water they absorb is used in transpiration, a biological function similar to sweating.
This means a plant’s thirst will be directly related to several factors, such as:
- Light intensity
Watering on a schedule is no different than drinking bottles of water on a timer.
Unfortunately for your plant, this can lead to many pest and disease problems.
For that reason, we strongly recommend never using the calendar method and instead focusing on techniques proven to work.
Salvaging An Overwatered Ponytail Palm
The good news is that a plant overwatered once or twice will recover on its own, as long as you give the soil time to dry properly.
However, a severely overwatered plant will need more drastic measures.
Begin by uprooting the plant, discarding the soil, and (unless you know how to sterilize it properly) the pot.
Next, examine the roots for signs of root rot and remove any infected roots using a sterile knife.
Symptoms include the following:
- Brown to black coloration
- A mushy texture
- A foul odor coming from the root system
Make sure to resterilize your knife between each cut, so you don’t spread the infection.
Once all visible signs of rot are gone, soak the roots in a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water for 20 minutes.
Allow the plant to air dry for 2 to 3 days, then repot in a fresh pot with new soil.
Avoid using fertilizer for 1 to 2 months while the plant recovers.
Testing the Water
Of course, the best way to avoid overwatering is to only water when the plant needs it.
The finger method makes testing so easy that you can literally do it while walking past your plants.
Your index finger is approximately 3” inches long, with the two knuckles and base of the finger, each marking an inch.
Ponytail palms have fairly deep roots, so you’ll need to stick your whole finger in (i.e., 3” inches), aiming straight down.
If the soil feels dry down, it’s time to water.
Alternatively, mark a popsicle stick or wooden chopstick at 1” inch intervals and stick that into the soil instead.
Allow it to remain for approximately 20 minutes, then examine the stick.
It will appear darker where moisture is present.
Using The Soak And Dry Method
One of the most effective watering methods out there is the soak-and-dry method.
This technique only requires you to master one little trick.
That trick is pouring water at a very slow pace, which allows the soil to soak up any moisture immediately.
Once you’ve used the method a few times, the proper watering speed will become a matter of muscle memory.
We suggest a small watering can that diffuses the water, but you can literally use a drinking glass once you get the pouring speed down.
You’ll also want to use room temperature distilled water or (preferably) natural rainwater, as these are far less likely to cause a buildup of toxic mineral salts in the soil.
Begin pouring, slowly working your way around the plant so the soil is evenly moistened.
Try not to get the plant wet, especially in an indoor setting where the water is less likely to evaporate quickly.
Even though these trees can handle rain, getting wet in artificial conditions can increase the risk of fungal infections.
The soil will tell you when it’s time to stop.
For potted plants, it’s time to stop when you see moisture beginning to seep from the container’s drainage holes.
Meanwhile, both potted and garden plants will tell you to stop if you see the soil having trouble absorbing water at the same rate you’re pouring it.
This latter sign is why a proper pour speed is important.
Can You Use the Bottom-Up Method for Ponytail Palms?
The soak and dry method may be perfect for most plants, but it has one major drawback: it’s almost impossible to use when a plant covers the soil with its foliage.
However, a second popular watering technique solves this problem, although it will only work on potted plants.
The bottom-up method involves using a deep tray or basin to water the plant from below instead of above.
To use this method, simply set the entire pot in your basin once it’s thirsty and fill the basin with water.
Allow the pot to soak for about 20 minutes, adding more water to the basin.
After the 20 minutes are up, touch the soil surface, and if it’s damp, the process is over.
You may need to let it soak a little longer, checking in 5-minute intervals.
Just be sure not to let it soak for more than an hour.
Once finished, remove the pot from the basin and allow any excess moisture to drain back out of the drainage holes.