For those of us who love growing plants inside or outside our home, caring for the plants is a consequent responsibility. The ponytail palm is no different and will suffer if appropriate care is not given. The good news is that the ponytail palm thrives well with minimal care, but minimal does not mean “no care” since that can cause leaf, stem, and root problems.
So, what causes Ponytail palm problems like stem/leaf rot and yellow/brown leaves? Overwatering and underwatering are the two major causes of ponytail problems. While root and stem rot are associated with overwatering, brown leaves come when the soil is parched. Other causes include excessive fertilizing and, in rare cases, pest invasion and fungus.
In this article, we give you comprehensive information about the causes, symptoms, and solutions for Ponytail palm stem/leaf rot and yellow/brown leaves. But, before delving into these problems, we give you a quick account of the Ponytail palm care needs so you can understand the problems with greater clarity. Keep reading!
The Ponytail Palm: General Care Requirements
The Ponytail palm is scientifically known as Beaucarnea (Nolina) recurvate. But the plant has a few other common names that include Elephant foot, Bottle palm, and Ponytail plant. Despite being called a palm, this plant is more of a semi-succulent plant than a typical palm. Its long and narrow dark-green leaves curl downwards at the end, explaining the scientific term, recurvate, which means curved.
It is easy to take care of the Ponytail plant, especially when it comes to watering. This is because the plant’s dense trunk (caudex) stores water, and you don’t need to water it frequently. We tell you about the Ponytail’s water requirements and a few other important details on Ponytail palm plant care. Understanding these care tips will keep your plant healthy and free from diseases.
Watering your Ponytail palm will depend a lot on seasons. In warmer seasons, you will need to water your plant more regularly than you would in cooler winter seasons. In all cases, however, the rule of thumb is to allow the soil to dry before giving your elephant foot more water.
Soil and Pot
Ponytail palms flourish best in well-drained desert-type soil. So, create your potting soil mix to mimic that. For example, you can mix 1 part of potting soil with equal parts of sand and perlite. This will favor good drainage and avoid overwatering.
Also, use a pot with a hole at the bottom to facilitate drainage. Clay pots are recommended because their porous nature allows a bit of water drainage from the sides.
Ponytail palms bloom in warm temperatures ranging around 15°C (59°F). They will still grow in temperatures lower than that, but not as graciously as they do in warmer temperatures.
For a healthy Ponytail, add a well-balanced fertilizer diluted by half once a month in spring and summer. Do not add fertilizers in winter when the plant’s growth process is slowed. Also, do not exaggerate the amount of fertilizer given at one time, as this will accumulate the salts and destroy your plant. You may opt for a slow-release organic fertilizer that is applied once in six months.
Ponytails prefer well-lighted locations or full sunlight. Inside the house, a place near a window that lets in a good amount of light would be great for the plant. However, avoid leaving your Ponytail palm near a cold window in winter, especially during the night when temperatures can get extremely low.
If the plant is exposed to limited light, growth will slow down. That might suggest a vacation in the patio over winter, where there is a lot more light.
Humidity is not a threat to the Ponytail palm, which can thrive in low or moderate humidity. This means that the dry air in our homes that is caused by heating and cooling systems is not a problem for Ponytail. Nevertheless, a change of air in the patio once in a while will be good for the plant.
Repotting and Potting Offshoots
For obvious esthetic reasons, you will want to grow your young Ponytail palm in a small pot. Nonetheless, if your plant is growing well, you may need to repot it to allow it to grow bigger if that is what you have in mind. Repotting your Ponytail palm every year is recommended. Instead, if you want to keep your plant at an average size, repot it only once every couple of years.
If your Ponytail palm gives offshoots at its base, grow them in new pots. This should be done in spring. Ensure the offshoot is well established before removing and potting it. Offshoots that a potted too soon will not grow roots and will eventually die. Those that are well established will also struggle to grow in the beginning, but they will eventually pick the pace. A rooting hormone may be considered to facilitate growth.
Ordinarily, you do not need to prune Ponytail palms. But yellow or brown leaves and those showing brown or black spots should be removed.
Note that yellow, brown, or black colors on your Ponytail plant are danger signs, which brings us to our main focus: Ponytail palm stem/leaf rot, and yellow/brown leaves.
Ponytail Palm Root and Stem Rot: Symptoms, Causes, and What You Should Do
Root and stem rot in Ponytail palms is usually indicative of overwatering. As indicated earlier, Ponytail palm is a desert plant that thrives in well-drained soil. If the plant is consistently in sodden soil or excessive moisture, it will eventually show signs of root and stem rot. Water-logging kills the small Ponytail palm roots, rendering the plant unable to take in water and nutrients.
The Signs of Root and Stem Rot
A Ponytail palm with root and stem rot will show these signs:
- Slowed growth
- Wilted and/or yellow leaves
- Squishy or soft caudex
- Discolored and mushy roots that may also appear whitish
What to Do With Ponytail Root and Stem Rot
By the time the above-listed signs appear, your plant has already been decaying for quite some time. Often, it is impossible to redeem your Ponytail palm unless the rot is caught in time. If this is the case, withholding water and ensuring the right soil drainage may be enough to revive your plant. If instead, the rot is advanced, this is what you should do:
- Remove the plant from the pot and use a clean and sharp knife to remove the affected parts.
- Repot the plant in a new container. The new pot should be well-draining, with a hole at the bottom and preferably made of clay.
- If your dying Ponytail palm is a landscape plant, perform step i. above and replant it in a new location.
Both potted and landscape Ponytail palm plants that are completely destroyed by rot should be disposed of as they may also be affected by fungus.
Poor soil drainage and overwatering are the primary causes of root and stem rot. As a preventive measure, ensure your Ponytail palm is planted in well-drained soil and water only when the soil is dry. Also, do not grow your Ponytail palm in a large container as this encourages overwatering. If your Ponytail palm is a landscape plant, make sure it is planted in a well-draining location.
Ponytail Palm With Droopy Leaves: Cause and Solutions
A Ponytail palm with droopy leaves is a clear sign that the soil has been left dry for a long time. Even though it is a desert plant, your Ponytail palm won’t go without water for months. Once the soil dries, it is time to give your plant more water. A dehydrated Ponytail palm will show these two primary symptoms:
- Droopy leaves that eventually go brown and start curling
- A wrinkled trunk that gradually goes limp
A drooping Ponytail palm is not necessarily dead. You can still revive your plant with a thorough soak and give it its original vigor. Follow these steps to revive your droopy Ponytail palm:
- Place your potted Ponytail palm in a sink and fill it with cold water to a 3-4ʺ (7.6-10.2cm) level.
- Leave your plant in the water for about 45 minutes and let the soil soak through the hole that is at the bottom of the pot. At least 3ʺ (7.6cm) of soil should be soaked. This means that the caudex has also absorbed a good amount of moisture, and you should start to notice the leaves regaining their sheen. If the soil is taking too long to soak, water the plant slowly from the top to hasten moistening.
- When all the soil is moist, remove the water from the sink and leave the plant inside for a while to let it drain any standing water.
- Replace your plant on the saucer and then back to its usual spot.
Since over-drying the soil is the primary cause of a droopy Ponytail palm, sticking to the watering schedule will prevent your plant from wilting. Remember that the recommended watering time is when the soil is completely dry. If you stick to this, you’ll avoid other droopy-plant episodes in the future.
Ponytail Palm Leaves Turning Brown and Crispy
If your Ponytail palm stays parched even after it has shown signs of drooping, the next thing to happen is that the leaves will begin to turn brown and crispy. This will start at the blades until the entire leaf is finally dead. If your Ponytail palm has reached this point, the first thing to do is clean it up so that the plant can replenish its healthy parts with the available water and nutrients.
To clean the brown leaves, remove them with a clean and sharp pair of pruning shears or scissors. A sharp pair shields the healthy part of the leaf that is adjacent to the dead part from unnecessary pressure and possible destruction. If most of the leaf is dead, you will have to get rid of it entirely. Quarter leaves will look untidy and ruin the esthetic appeal of your plant.
If most, but not all, the leaves of your Ponytail palm are brown and crispy, remove them in stages to avoid subjecting your plant to too much change at one moment. You could remove a quarter of the brown leaves at a time.
Considering that the cause of brown and crispy leaves is dehydration, you’ll still need to revive your plant by watering. Follow the steps explained in the previous section for reviving your droopy Ponytail palm.
Sometimes, brown leaves may result from your intention to give your Ponytail plant a new look. However, pruning your plant when it is healthy by snipping the tips of the leaves will ruin whatever esthetic idea you had in mind. This is because all you will achieve is brown edges. Some people advise removing entire leaves even if only the tip is brown. Doing so maintains the plant’s green color throughout.
Ponytail Palm Leaves Turning Yellow and Dropping
There are two major reasons why your Ponytail palm leaves are turning yellow. First, as already indicated, overwatering that leads to soggy soil will cause the leaves of your Ponytail palm to turn yellow. If this is not corrected on time, the leaves will lose their grip on the stem and start hanging from the stem joint or falling altogether.
The solution for yellow leaves due to overwatering is to facilitate proper drainage for your Ponytail plant. The yellow part of the leaf will not turn green again and will need to be removed, but yellowing will be arrested with proper drainage for the leaves that are still healthy.
A second reason why your Ponytail palm’s leaves may turn yellow is over-application of fertilizers. This leads to a high accumulation of salts that ‘burn’ the leaves of your plant. As already indicated in the section on the general care requirements, it is better to feed a little fertilizer once in a month during spring and summer or use a slow-release organic fertilizer applied once to last for six months.
If the yellow leaves have already appeared due to salt accumulation, you will need to repot your plant in new well-drained soil. If you detect salt saturation before much damage is done, give additional water to your plant to wash off the mineral as the soil drains. You may have to do this a few times, ensuring that each time the soil is well-drained before placing back the plant to its usual place.
Ponytail Palm Disfigured, Molten Yellow, and Dark Leaves
Ponytail palms are not prone to pests. But if they do invade, they can cause harm to the plant by disfiguring leaves. The most common pests invading the ponytail plant are spider mites, scale, and mealybugs. The symptoms of pest attack on the Ponytail palm include disfigured leaves and a molten yellow discoloration on the underside of leaves.
Washing your Ponytail plant with insecticidal soap or using plant-based oils such as neem will send away the pests.
A dark color on leaves can appear if they are infested with a fungus described as sooty mold. This fungus does not attack the leaves but grows on the honeydew that is excreted by invading pests. If it gets dense, the sooty mold will interfere with the photosynthesis of your Ponytail palm due to inadequate light. As a result, the sooty mold-coated leaves will senesce (age prematurely), leading to their death and eventually falling.
If your plant is grown in the garden, consistent rain will wash away the sooty mold. Potted plants may require you to mechanically wash off the mold with water and soap. However, the most effective way to get rid of the mold is by eliminating the pests that create the honeydew. Using plant-based oils like canola and neem will control the pests.
Even though it is usually associated with corn and other palm species, it is also suggested that bacterial leaf streak affects Ponytail palms. The disease will specifically attack the stripes between leaf veins, causing them to be disfigured and have a molten yellow color. Foliar fungicides are used to manage the disease, but affected leaves will have to go even if the disease is controlled.
Conclusively, even though Ponytail palms are generally highly resistant to disease and pests, once the problems we have discussed appear, they all need to be addressed as soon as possible since they will eventually lead to the death of your plant if they are left unattended.
The Ponytail plant generally grows with little care. However, that does not mean that proper watering is neglected. Overwatering or underwatering will cause several problems to your plant, including root and stem rot, yellow, or brown and crispy leaves. Adding too much fertilizer accumulates salts in the soil and will also cause brown leaves.
Pests and fungus cause destruction on Ponytail palms, which manifest in molten-yellow leaves and sooty mold.
To counter these problems, ensure your Ponytail plant is only watered when the soil is completely dry, and don’t leave your plant without watering when the soil is drained. In addition, only add a small amount of water-soluble fertilizer once a month in spring and summer. If these care details are followed, your Ponytail plant will keep its vigor throughout the year.