Why is My Ponytail Palm Dying? Can I Revive it?

Ponytail palms can be fickle plants. They are quite beautiful though, when well taken care of. But what happens when your ponytail palm starts dying? What should you do now? In this article, amateur gardener Jason White examines the steps you should take to revive your favorite plant.

Ponytail Palm Indoors

Ponytail palms are a popular outdoor and indoor palm tree for many houseplant enthusiasts. Its lush foliage is easy on the eyes, and its chubby trunk is reminiscent of an elephant’s foot! For that reason, it is also called the elephant foot’s palm. Despite having “palm” in its name, it’s not a true palm; it is actually more closely related to the agave. Regardless of naming conventions, one thing everyone can agree on is that they are among the easiest plants to take care of.

Still, things can still go wrong even with such low-maintenance plants. If something is ailing your plant, then it could definitely be cause for alarm, since they hardly ever complain! In this article, we list some of the most common problems that this plant can face.

While these issues can put your beloved houseplant in a perilous situation, it’s definitely possible to bring it back to good health. Ponytail palms are perennials that can live decades or longer if properly cared for, so with some TLC, these tips will help you get your plant back as quickly as possible!

Root Rot and Stem Rot

Rotted Roots Being Examined
Overwatering is not the only cause for root rot.

Root rot and stem rot are among the most common problems in this plant. This happens when the plant is allowed to remain in very moist soil. Good drainage is important for most plants, and the ponytail palm is no exception. You can identify root and stem rot when the leaves of your plant have yellowed and the base of the stem, as well as, the roots have turned mushy and brown.

Overwatering doesn’t have to be the cause for rot, though it certainly is a factor. It could be that the soil you’ve chosen retains too much water and does not drain well. The pot could also be too large, such that the plant is unable to soak up all the water from it, and thus stays in standing water.

How to Fix:

Allowing the soil to dry out and remain dry for a while can help reverse the problem. More concretely, it may be a good idea to repot your plant. Use a potting mix that has good drainage; soil that is sandy and loamy is a good choice for this plant, because it is native to the desert.

Cactus or succulent potting mix is perfect for this plant. Pick out a pot that is the appropriate size for your plant, and ensure that it has drainage holes. Before replanting, prune all brown and mushy roots off the plant. Following these steps should bring your beloved plant back to good health.

Plant Dehydration

Dehydrated Plant
Your plant may need extra sips of water during hot summer months.

If you’ve noticed your ponytail palm’s leaves turning brown and crispy, then it is a good sign that it has become dehydrated. Dehydrated leaves will curl inward as a sign of stress. This usually happens if it goes a few weeks without any water. You’ll see the browning most prominently at the tips of the leaves. You may also notice that the trunk, which is normally swollen, has become much smaller.

Under-watering your plant often occurs in the hot, summer months. By testing the soil with bare fingers, you can check for moisture. If the first 3 inches of the soil are very dry, then it is time to water. You will also notice the pot has become much lighter. You should water your plant once every two weeks, ensuring that the soil is mostly dry before attempting to water.

How to Fix:

The best way to water this plant is with a technique called bottom watering. Leave the plant in a basin of tepid water, with the water being around 4 inches deep. Allow it to sit there for 45 minutes up to an hour.

From there, you should see the soil being much moister up to three inches below the surface. Return the plant to its saucer and it should start feeling much better. New growth should be nice and green; your plant will look much better in no time.

Nutrient Deficiency

Checking Soil in Pot
Check your soil before buying a fertilizer.

You may be alarmed to see yellowing leaves. This is a sign of nutrient deficiency, and must be amended immediately. Potting mix for cacti and succulents is nutrient-poor, so while it’s the ideal consistency, you will need to supplement it with fertilizer.

Before purchasing a good plant food, try testing the soil with a test kit, available at most garden supply stores. Yellowing leaves are a sign of deficiencies of either manganese, magnesium, or nitrogen. Once you receive the results, choose a fertilizer that contains more of what the soil is missing.

How to Fix:

Slow-release fertilizer is the best choice. However, since it does release nutrients over a longer period of time, it may take a while before your plant comes back to its former self. It may be a good month or two before you start seeing any results, so be patient and ensure you are attending to your plant’s needs as it comes out of ill health.

Remember to use the fertilizer according to the packaging instructions for the best results. Any less, and you won’t be able to see the effects as you want them. However, giving your plant too much fertilizer is also a problem. Let’s explore that further.

Over-Fertilizing

Brown Tips of a Potted Plant
It may be a good idea to dilute your fertilizer to start to ensure you are not over-fertilizing.

Adding too much fertilizer to the soil can cause a few different problems. Like in dehydration, you will see that the plant’s leaves have started to brown at the tips. However, they will not be curling. Brown leaves in this case are an indication that it is being overfed.

Ponytail palms need fertilizer that is good for cacti and succulents. Do not mistake this plant for a palm and get it palm fertilizer. Because they are not true palms, they will not thrive when given other plant food.

While you are excited to see more growth for your precious plant, you should only give it fertilizer through the active growing periods, from spring through fall. Cease fertilizing in winter to allow your plant the rest it needs.

How to Fix

Start your fertilizing process by diluting the succulent fertilizer you use by half their strength. You can adjust as you see necessary. However, too much fertilizer will cause not just leaf browning, but also root browning. This burns the plant and causes many issues. If this has happened, then allow the plant to rest from fertilizing. Once it has recovered, you can start giving fertilizer again, as long as it’s at a good dosage.

Frost Damage

Beaucarnea recurvata with Frost Damage
Leaves could brown or blacken if exposed to low temperatures.

Being a desert-dwelling plant, winters can be harsh for these plants. If you have a favorite ponytail palm resting on your porch, you should bring it in on cold nights to prevent frost damage as much as possible. The temperature outdoors must remain above 20 degrees Fahrenheit; anything less than this usually spells death for your plant.

You may notice your plant’s trunk beginning to rot, usually in a top to bottom fashion. It will look mushy and soft; this is from ruptured tissue caused by ice crystals forming on the plant. Other symptoms include browning or blackening of the plant’s leaves. The wounds formed by the ice crystals can cause infection, and could end up ruining the plant.

How to Fix:

To fix the problem, you should prune any damaged parts of the plant. Leaves that are mostly green can be left on the plant. Be sure to clean your shears thoroughly before using them on any other plants. Otherwise, you run the risk of spreading illness to them, too, if fungal infection has occurred.

To continue treatment, spray the plant with a good quality fungicide that contains copper, following the instructions to the letter. After 10 days have passed, reapply the fungicide. This is usually a preventative measure, but could serve your plant well if a fungus has already entered its wounds.

After the second fungicide spraying, it is time to fertilize the plant to encourage new growth. Repeat the application process once a month, taking care not to over-fertilize. 

When watching for new growth, it’s normal to see new leaves coming in looking a little awkward or distorted. This is the result of frost damage. Simply allow the plant the time it needs to adjust, and water it deeply every 2 weeks

Mealybug Infestation

Spraying Beaucarnea recurvata in Pot
Mealybugs can infest many different types of houseplants.

If you notice a fuzzy, white substance on your ponytail palm, this is a sign of a mealybug infestation. The white fluff is a material secreted by mealybugs, which are notorious for being lovers of houseplants. They especially love to infest and kill pothos plants, so keep that in mind if you have a pothos near your ponytail palm. Unfortunately, mealybug infestations are only really noticeable once they’ve become severe.

As the infestation continues, the mealybugs will suck the sap out of the plant. Since this is the plant’s lifeblood, its leaves will begin to yellow, eventually falling off. Worse still, the excretions from mealybugs form a perfect breeding ground for sooty mold. This can interfere with the plant being able to photosynthesize, and may kill the plant entirely!

If you notice a mealybug infestation, the first thing you must do is keep the infected plant away from other plants to prevent the spread. Next, prune the infected parts of the plant, and discard clippings properly, burning them if you can. After that, you can proceed to a chemical treatment.

How to Fix:

There are pesticides meant specifically for handling mealybugs. These contain pyrethrin, which is a non-toxic plant extract. When used properly, it is highly effective at killing many different pests, mealybugs included. You can also purchase a neem oil pesticide, available at most garden stores; this has also proven to be effective.

Further tips are to use 70% isopropyl rubbing alcohol to kill the bugs on the plant. You can dab at them with a soaked cotton swab, or rub the alcohol on the leaves. This also has the added benefit of helping kill any unseen fungus. Do this regularly for best results.

You can also opt to spray it with a solution of 1 part alcohol to 1 part water. You can add a bit of dish soap for better effects. When applying this treatment, do it at a cooler time of day, and not while the plant is in the direct heat of the sun.

Shrinking Trunk

Beaucarnea recurvata Trunk
A shrinking trunk can be a sign of underwatering.

While a shrinking trunk can be cause for alarm, as it’s sometimes a sign of dehydration, it’s usually normal for a ponytail palm’s trunk to shrink a bit. This plant stores its water at the base of its trunk, in a little swollen portion called the caudex. As the plant soaks up water, the caudex saves the water for future use.

As the water gets used up, it deflates, causing the trunk to shrink. When this happens, it’s usually just a good indication that it’s time to water your plant. In more serious conditions, you can see the bark shriveling up, as well as the trunk shrinking. Deep watering is necessary in these conditions.

Remember that it’s fine for the trunk to shrink a bit as long as it’s not too drastic. The caudex should never be soft or mushy, as this is a sign that something is wrong. Proper care for the caudex begins at planting time. You should choose a pot that’s slightly larger than the caudex and size up gradually as the plant grows.

How to Fix:

When planting, half of the caudex should be left above the soil. When watering the plant, it’s a good idea not to get water on the caudex to prevent rot. Allow the soil to dry out sufficiently before you water it again.

Acclimation

Small Houseplant in House
Most plants have an accilimation period of at least a few weeks after being replanted.

The final thing to keep in mind if you notice your ponytail palm looking sick is acclimation. This is especially true if you have just brought the plant home, or if you have moved it to a different area of the house. In the case of just having purchased the plant, bear in mind that it is used to the comfortable conditions of the greenhouse it was raised in.

Transportation and being brought to an unfamiliar environment can cause stress for the plant, causing it to behave dramatically. The same can be true if you move your plant to a room with different conditions, such as one with a strong air current from the vents, or a place with less sunlight.

How to Fix:

All plants need time to get used to their new living conditions. At this point in your plant’s life, it will need plenty of comfort and as little stress as possible. With enough time and care, your plant should be able to acclimate as it needs to, and come back to good health. Ensure that you are attending to its needs, and it is sure to brighten back up and bring joy to everyone in your home.

Final Thoughts

We hope that this article has helped you bring your ponytail palm back into good health! These plants are very rewarding plants that definitely deserve their place as a favorite houseplant for so many households. They don’t require much, but understanding their needs is the best way to ensure they spend many long years with you. Everyone deserves a home brightened up by lush foliage, after all!

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