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Ponytail Palm

Question:

I have had this plant about two years. There are three ‘branches’

that all seemed to be doing well until very recently. I have repotted it once when it looked too big for the original pot. I think the pot it is in is too big but don’t want to bother it again. I have it in a west facing window (all I have). Suddenly it is all very droopy instead of the big arching look I am used to. I have never given it fertilizer and water only when the soil looks really dry. Never even knew the name until recently. Please help. I cant send a picture. Grandson says I’m illiterate!

Answer:

I have written frequently that unnecessary repotting is the single most common cause of plant failure, whether or not you know the name of the plant! Nearly all potted plant do best when they are tightly potted, moderately root-bound and “look” like they are too big for their pots to the layperson’s eyes.

When you move a plant to a bigger pot several things typically go wrong. First and foremost, the extra soil you add retains water and stay moist around the roots for too long and deprives the roots of the oxygen they need. So the roots rot. Second, many of the tiny root hairs get damaged in the process of repotting and they do most of the work. Third, most people don’t use the right potting mix for their plant. Fourth, most folks don’t reduce the frequency of watering after repotting. Fifth, most people mistakenly add soil on top of the original rootball and that makes it much harder to determine when the soil is appropriately dry. None of this happens when you do NOT repot.

Ponytail Palms have very small root systems that can withstand drought, but rot very easily because they are naturally adapted to arid climates. They have large base bulbs that store water so they can withstand drought. The diameter of the pot should never be more than a half to one inch wider than the width of the bulb at its widest part. The entire bulb above the roots should never be below the top of the soil or else the bulb will start to rot.

I suspect the roots of your Ponytail are already completely rotted and dead and it will be very difficult to salvage. Gently remove it from the pot and let the excess soil fall away, but do not rinse it away. Look for firm, healthy, whitish roots growing from the bottom of the bulb. If you see some, then you have a chance. Make a potting mix that is half peat moss and half perlite well blended together. Use a shallow pot that is just wide enough to accommodate he width of the bulb. Set the bulb on top of the potting mix in the pot. Keep the potting mix barely damp. It will take many months for a new root system to develop and the foliage will continue to decline in the interim. Look for signs or healthy new top growth. Keep it in a sunny location close to a window and keep it as warm as possible.

If you do not find any healthy roots and can see that the bottom of the bulb is soft, then discard the plant as it will not recover.

Fertilizer is overrated; it is not medicine and should only be used on plants that are healthy and growing vigorously.