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What is Beaucarnea?

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  • Written By: Helga George
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2019
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Beaucarnea is a genus of four flowering plants that were previously thought to be members of the agave family, but are now considered to be in the Ruscaceae family. The most well known species is Beaucarnea recurvata, more commonly known as the ponytail palm or elephant foot tree. This tree, not a real palm, is native to the Mexican deserts. It is grown as a landscaping tree in warmer climates, and as a frequently long-lived houseplant in cool and warm climates.

This species of Beaucarnea can grow to 30 ft (9 m) tall, but usually does not reach more than 10 ft (3 m) when grown indoors. It has a bulbous base up to 7 ft (2.1 m) across, which stores water to support the plant in times of drought. From a distance, this type of plant looks like an onion with tufts of leaves sprouting from the base. The leaves can grow to be 6 ft (1.8 m) long on outdoor specimens, but generally only grow to be 2 ft (0.6 m) on houseplants.

Often, several branches will grow from one base, each with a tuft of leaves sprouting from them. Older plants in the tropics will flower, producing creamy flowers above the leaves. These flowers last for several weeks and are produced in the spring or summer. Infrequently, flowers are produced on houseplants.

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The plants are undemanding to grow except that they require good drainage, or the roots are likely to succumb to rot. They can tolerate full sun or partial shade and grow in an array of different soils. They have a moderate tolerance to salt spray if grown by the ocean. This type of plant will only grow in a warm climate, requiring temperatures that do not go below 40°F (9.3°C).

As a houseplant, the ponytail palm will grow in bright light, although it grows best with four hours of direct sunlight a day. Plants can be grown from seed. The size of the pot should only be increased gradually, so the plants will not be over watered. They should be allowed to partially dry out between waterings. Ponytail palms should be watered less frequently during the winter, or they may succumb to root rot.

This plant can tolerate a wide range of temperatures when grown indoors, from 40-90°F (9.3-35°C). The ideal temperatures for nights are 50-55°F (10-12.8°C), and those for days are 68-72°F (20-22.2°C). The plant should be fertilized monthly during the summer.

This type of plant can grow indefinitely. Often, indoor growth is only limited by the height of the ceiling. If the plant grows too large for indoors and is to be moved outside, it should gradually be exposed to its new environment. An abrupt change in light and temperature should be avoided.

There is some debate about the terminology for this genus. Beaucarnea is also often known as Nolina. The latter term is more commonly used in Europe.

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