Ponytail Palms Are Native, Easy To Care For And Easy To Find

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  • Post last modified:August 27, 2012
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California has so many beautiful native and non-native plants that call this state home that it is often difficult to choose a favorite plant or tree, especially when you talk about landscaping. I like to use plants that are fairly drought tolerant, have some unique physical aspect about them and are easy to care for and grow. One of these plants is the Nolina Recurvata or Beaucarnea.

This plant is found in many nurseries and is commonly known as the Ponytail Palm or Elephant Foot. In fact, this plant is not a palm at all; it is actually from the Agavaceae family. It’s very similar to the common Yucca and Agave Attenuatta, which are found throughout Encinitas.

The Recurvata or Beaucarnea, as it is known in Latin Circles, means beautiful flesh and has a large foot or base that is called a Caudex. This foot is a storage facility for water in the event of dry times. This base can sustain it for almost a year in the event of no rain.

Since this plant hails from Vera Cruz and most of eastern Mexico, it is a desert dweller and can handle large amounts of sunshine and very small amounts of water. I like it because it has a very unusual canopy and an interesting foot. The leaves of the Nolina Recurvata are long and sinewy, resembling a ponytail and are thusly named as such.

Once I found a great source for these plants in Encinitas. The price, unbelievably reasonable, prompted me to buy four or five of them. But, when I started to move them, I noticed that there were several rows of dead leaves on the various trunks.

With my knowledge of Yuccas, I started to pull the dead leaves from the upper stalks of the tree with my bare hands. What a mistake! I should have had gloves on. The leaves or the edges of the Nolina leaves are very sharp and very narrow and I received some deep paper cuts while running my hands down the old brown leaves. Man, that hurt! But it was so easy to clean these trees, once you figured that out. The neat thing about this specimen plant is that it can bloom up to two or three times a year depending on the amount of water they receive.

First of all, the tops of the plant will generate a beautiful two to three-foot bloom of white, smallish flowers and smaller fruit or seeds. When it does, the stalk bifurcates and ends up with a split or division of trunks afterwards. That’s why the canopy of this tree becomes larger and denser over time and subsequent blooming cycles. In fact, you have to remove the blooms after they are done flowering because they become unsightly, removing quite easily the drier they become.

A Nolina Recurvata will rarely bloom in the interior of a home because it needs much more light for this but it will be a great low maintenance plant for this application. Once, I was involved with the removal and relocation of many specimen palms and a large Nolina Recurvata on a large estate. The base of the plant was over eight feet in diameter wide and approximately 10 feet tall. I was not quite sure how to proceed but I had had some experience removing some Yuccas before. The roots feeding the large foot area where starches and sugar are stored are usually small. Here I dug a small trench around the base of the trunk and sure enough, there were only small spaghetti roots emanating from trunk itself for absorption. 

Knowing this, I used a backhoe bucket to get under the base and tied a chain and some cushioning wrapped around the base of the plant to lift it right out of the ground. The plant didn’t even skip a beat and with adequate watering moved just as easily to its new location. What a plant!