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Beaucarnea recurvata Lem. 1861
pronounced: bow-KAR-nee-uh rek-er-VAH-tuh
(Asparagaceae – the asparagus family)
synonym: Nolina recurvata (Lem.) Hemsl. 1884
pronounced: no-LEE-nuh rek-er-VAH-tuh
common names: Ponytail Palm, Elephant’s Foot Tree
Beaucarnea was named for Jean-Baptiste Beaucarne, 19th century Belgian plant collector. In the synonym, Nolina is for Abbé Pierre Charles Nolin, 18th century French aboriculturist. Recurvata is from the Latin recurvatus, bent backwards.
The Ponytail Palm is native to the dry, desert regions of Mexico and the southern USA. Related to the Yuccas, this is a slow-growing evergreen tree that grows to about 9 m tall. Its palm-like trunk has a massive swollen base, that in a fully-grown tree can be as much as 3 m in diameter. The trunk tapers upwards and then branches, with each branch supporting a dense crown of long, strappy, pendulous leaves.
Ponytails are dioecious. Patience is needed: they do not flower or set seed until they are at least 10 years old, and female trees will not set seed unless there is a male plant fairly near by.
The inflorescence is well-branched, with thousands of white to cream flowers, very popular with bees. It is not possible to tell a male plant from a female until it flowers. After flowering, the male inflorescence becomes straw-coloured, while the female takes on a pinkish tinge while the seeds are maturing. The seeds are round, about the size of a peppercorn, and tan in colour when they mature.
This plant is a good indoor, patio or balcony plant, and a splendid garden feature. Temptation should be resisted to over-water these plants. They can store up to a year’s supply of water in the base. Propagation is from seed, or offsets taken from the parent plant in spring.
Ponytails growing outdoors like full sun and good drainage. Potted indoor specimens need high light levels and a warm position. They need to be watered well during summer, but sparingly during winter: otherwise the trunk may rot. As the potted tree grows, it is necessary to keep an eye on the size of the ‘elephant’s foot’, and to re-pot the plant before it cracks its container.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2009, 2012, 2015, Nelly Bay 2016
Page last updated 10th Octoberr 2016