The ponytail palm or elephant’s foot (Beaucarnea recurvata) is a curious-looking specimen, but lovable with it.
Native to Mexico, these exotic perennials aren’t related to true palms but bear a strong resemblance (albeit with an unrulier hairstyle).
As you’d expect from their tropical looks, the plants thrive in warm dry air, and can grow up to 2 metres (almost ceiling height!) in centrally heated rooms.
Plus, they’re low on maintenance. Their swollen bulb-like base stores up water, letting them survive for weeks without a top-up.
This means that overwatering a ponytail palm is MUCH likelier than underwatering one. But if you’ve got a hunch yours might be short on water, let’s help you diagnose it.
Here are the telltale signs your plant needs more water.
Signs of an underwatered ponytail palm
1. Deflated bulb
Take a look at the plant’s bulbous base, or caudex. A well watered ponytail palm will have a full, firm caudex that resembles an elephant’s foot (hence its other common name of elephant foot tree).
Is your plant’s base looking a little shrivelled, wrinkled and deflated? A shrunken bulb means the plant’s water reserves are running low.
2. Limp, droopy leaves
Like other houseplants, an underwatered ponytail palm will develop droopy, wilting foliage and generally look a little sorry for itself.
With their naturally recurved, cascading leaves, the change won’t be as dramatic as some droopy plant displays. But if you know your plant well, you should spot the leaves are hanging a little lower than usual.
3. Crispy brown leaf tips
Browning foliage, starting at the tips, is a sure sign of underwatering. The leaf blades may also feel dry, crispy and papery to the touch and start to curl at the edges.
4. Dry compost
A simple one, but perhaps the most reliable indicator. Do the finger test – push your finger into your plant’s potting soil. Do the top 2-3 inches feel completely dry?
If so, now’s the time to give your plant a really thorough soak. If the top of the soil is still moist, give it another week and check again before watering.
Reviving an underwatered plant
The remedy for a thirsty plant is obviously water, but if it’s visibly sulking, it’ll want more than a splash.
To rescue an underwatered ponytail palm, put the plant (in its pot) in the sink, sat in about 4 inches of tepid water.
Soak the plant thoroughly
Leave it to soak up water for an hour or so, until the top 2-3 inches of soil feel damp. Check with your finger to make sure.
Take the plant out of the sink and put it somewhere excess water can drain away before returning it to its saucer or pot cover.
Once the plant is recovered, periodically check the moisture of the soil to guide your watering.
Ponytail palm watering tip – don’t stick to a schedule
As they’re prone to overwatering, deciding when to water these plants is always, always best guided by the finger test.
No matter if you feel like it’s been too long since you watered last. Wait until soil feels dry down to your knuckle before giving them a good glug.
Water more often in warm weather
In spring and summer, you will probably need to water every 2-3 weeks. In the colder months, it’ll be closer to once a month.
When you do water, water well but make sure any excess drains away freely. If you think your plant is showing signs of underwatering, it may need a bit more TLC.
A one-off really thorough soak (as described above) should get it back fighting fit.
You might also like: How to revive a zebra plant that’s drooping.
Is a ponytail palm drought tolerant?
These plants are absolute troopers when it comes to doing without water. Their native habitat has irregular rainfall, so they are well adapted to drought conditions.
Thanks to that bulbous water-holding caudex, they can survive for around 4 weeks without water. Letting your ponytail palm dry out around the roots from time to time really won’t do it any harm.
But while it is very drought tolerant compared to many other houseplants, it won’t survive without water indefinitely.
Because it’s so undemanding, it can be easier to neglect than other plants. So try and make sure the watering doesn’t dwindle too much.
Should you mist your ponytail palm?
NO! A ponytail palm won’t thank you for using a misting spray, sitting it on a water-filled pebble tray, or any other measures to boost humidity.
As touched on earlier, it responds best to dry heat, which is why it grows so well in centrally heated rooms.
It does not need humid air, so save your spray mister for your other moisture-loving houseplants. If it’s thirsty, a good soak is all it needs.
While it’s difficult to underwater a ponytail palm, it’s not impossible – especially if you have other more demanding plants clamouring for your attention.
It takes a lot for them to make a fuss, but when they are really lacking in water they give you a clear, unambiguous sign to let you know.
So keep an eye on that base bulb, and if it’s looking distinctly less plump, it’s a definite sign you’ve got an underwatered ponytail palm on your hands.