Ponytail palm is one of those plants you can forget about when leaving for a three weeks long holiday. No need giving a key to your neighbor so they can water the plant. When you come back, it will be just all right, because it is almost impossible to under-water a ponytail palm. Plant’s strengths can sometimes become its weakness, however. And that’s exactly the case here: While you almost cannot under-water a ponytail palm, you can quite easily over-water it, which is the reason no. 1 for root rot in the plant.
In this article we will look at 3 most common causes of over-watering and root rot in a ponytail palm. I will also explain what you can do to save the palm (you can save it sometimes, but not always), and also explain the precautions you can take to prevent experiencing the same issue with other palms you have at home. Let’s start.
Bad watering schedule is the no. 1 reason for root rot in a ponytail palm
Roots rot when they bath in water, constantly, or most of the time, without enjoying some time in a dry soil. This can happen from several reasons (and we will look at them all in this post). The most obvious one is simply watering your ponytail palm too often. But what does it mean too often? Well, in my experience, anything more than once in 20 days is too often for a ponytail palm. This plant is native to southern Mexico, and accustomed to long periods of drought. You should water it only when the soil is dry. Anything else is too often, and in your country and your climate it can be even once in a month.
What I try to say here is that it makes no sense following some general schedule here. The moisture of the soil (which you can measure with a moisture meter, or just with your finger) should be your guide. Water your ponytail plant only when the soil is completely dry and you will prevent root rot (and all the bad things that typically follow, such as the softening of the trunk and eventual death of the plant).
Lack of drainage can be fatal to your ponytail plant
Watering schedule isn’t the only issue you may face here. In some cases, when you have bad soil mix or a pot without a drainage hole, the water may remain in the soil forever, even if you water your ponytail palm just sparingly. Many succulent growers underestimate the importance of having pots with drainage holes. Then they wonder why their plants struggle, experience root rot, and eventually die, while they water them sparingly. Now you know why: when the water doesn’t have an exit point from the pot, it will simply stay in the soil. Roots will remain wet for prolonged periods, and may easily start to rot.
I hope you know the remedy to this issue by now. Just for the case you don’t, let me emphasize it once again: plant your ponytail palm in a pot with a drainage hole. If there’s none, and you do not want to repot your plant, you can always drill a hole into the existing pot. This can get tricky with older palms (that are often very big and heavy), but most palms won’t reach such an age if you over-water them anyway. With a small pot you can always ask someone to hold it while you drill a hole or two from outside, with either electronic or mechanic driller (the first one is quicker, but the second one is more secure for the pot).
Soil type and quality also plays its role when it comes to root rot in a ponytail palm
Different soil types retain different amount of moisture. That’s why we have so many different soil mixes in stores, because while some plants love be be bathed in water, other plants hate it, and ponytail palm belongs to the second category. Many inexperienced growers underestimate the importance of right soil selection. They buy just one big pack of soil and use it for all plants in their house. This is a huge mistake which can in turn cost you your dear ponytail palm.
Ponytail palms prefer soil that drains quickly, and provides a lot of aeration. You can buy a soil intended for succulents and cacti in general, either on Amazon or in a local store. You can also make your own soil mix, if you have time and resources of course. I know this soil is often more expensive than soil for other plants, but think about it in this way: your ponytail palm may live decades in a good soil. If you try to save some money though and plant it just in any random soil you happen to have at home, it may experience root rot and eventually die. You will need to buy a new plant and will spend more money than in the first instance–when you invested into a good soil for your succulents. Hence even from the economic perspective, this investment makes a lot of sense.
Can you save a ponytail palm with rotten roots?
Whether or not you can save your plant depends on the extension of the damage. If the trunk has become very soft already, or you discovered the problem when the palm is half-dead, and you can barely see any healthy roots once you inspect things, your chances of saving the plant are negligible. In such a case the best thing to do is simply accepting the loss, learning the lessons, and moving on. I am sure you won’t repeat the same mistakes again with your new ponytail palm.
If you spot the problem early, however, and the body of the palm has not softened yet, you have a chance. Remove the plant from the pot and cut away the rotten roots. Leave just healthy roots on the plant, and repot it to a new pot. Make sure to use right soil mix (we talked about it just a minute ago), and a pot with a drainage hole. Lessen your watering frequency, leave the plant chance to recover. With a bit of luck it will :). Thank you for reading, I wish you good luck with your plants!
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