The ponytail palm or elephant’s foot (Beaucarnea recurvata) is a curious-looking specimen, but lovable with it.
Native to Mexico, the exotic perennials aren’t related to true palms but bear a strong resemblance (albeit with an unrulier hairstyle).
They thrive in warm dry air and can grow up to 2 metres (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 overwatering a ponytail palm is MUCH likelier than underwatering one. But if you’ve got a hunch yours is short on water, let’s help you diagnose it.
Here are the telltale signs of an underwatered ponytail palm.
How to tell if a ponytail palm needs water
1. Deflated bulb
Is the base looking a little shrivelled, wrinkled and deflated? A plant that’s receiving enough water will have a full, firm bulb at the base.
A shrunken bulb means the plant’s water reserves are running low.
2. Limp, droopy leaves
Like other houseplants, an underwatered ponytail palm will droop and wilt.
With their naturally recurved, cascading leaves the change won’t be as dramatic as some other plants, but you should spot the leaves hanging a little lower.
3. Crispy brown leaf tips
Browning foliage, starting at the tips, is a sure sign of underwatering. The leaf blades may also feel dry and crispy and curl at the edges.
4. Dry compost
Do the finger test – push your finger into the compost. Do the top 2-3 inches feel completely dry?
If they do, now’s the time to give your plant a good drink. If it’s still moist, give it another week and check again.
You might also like: How to revive a zebra plant that’s drooping.
Is a ponytail palm drought tolerant?
Yes, these plants are real 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. Complacency can creep in and make you forget it needs attending to altogether.
So try and make sure the watering doesn’t dwindle too much.
How often should a ponytail palm be watered?
Deciding when to water these plants is best guided by the finger test. Wait until soil feels dry down to your knuckle before giving them a good glug.
In spring and summer, this will probably end up being 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 should get it back fighting fit.
Soaking your plant
Put the plant (in its pot) in the sink, sat in about 4 inches of tepid water. Leave it to soak up water for an hour or so, or until water has reached the top 2-3 inches of soil.
Empty the sink and leave your plant somewhere the excess water can drain away through the bottom of the pot. When it’s stopped dripping, replace it on its saucer or in its pot cover.
Once the plant has recovered and looks healthy again, pick up with your normal watering regime.
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 above, 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.
To sum up
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.
Though these plants are somewhat bombproof, they’ll want to know you’re there when they need you. Keep them healthy and happy with a drink every few weeks. And just look at them – these charming unkempt oddbods will keep you happy right back!