Ponytail palm is a crowd favorite on both sides of the Pacific ocean. This succulent can easily outlive you, as I witnessed in a case of my grandmother. She got a small ponytail palm decades ago from her parents. She cared well for the plant, which grew slowly, bit by bit, always in the same place of her house. When she eventually passed away a couple of years ago, the now huge ponytail palm was still stoically present in her bedroom, a living memory of everything that happened in that house in last 80 years. My grandmother wasn’t an expert gardener or anythings similar. She actually often forgot to water her ponytail palm. And that’s perhaps the reason for the longevity of this palm–it thrives in neglect.
What I try to say here is that ponytail palm does not typically experience many problems. It rarely suffers from any pests, and it can tolerate almost any amount of sunshine (you cannot burn it). Basically the only common problem people see with this palm is its trunk getting soft, and, in many cases, the palm eventually drying out and dying. In this article I will analyze three main causes why this can happen, and tell you what to do to save your palm, should you already noticed the soft trunk. Before we dive into details, let me clarify the three main reasons: Over-watering, over-fertilization, rare fungi infection. Let’s have a look at them, one by one.
Over-watering as no. 1 reason for soft trunk in a ponytail palm
In my experience, over-watering is responsible for 90% of cases of soft trunk in ponytails (and what often follows it when untreated, that means the death of the plant). Hence before you do anything else, you should think whether your palm isn’t constantly drown in water. This can happen due to several reasons:
- Watering the palm much more often than it actually needs. Most ponytail palms will be fine with watering schedule of once in every two or three weeks.
- Using a pot without drainage hole, or forgetting to empty the saucer of remaining water one hour after watering the plant.
- Having a bad soil mix that simply retains too much water regardless of what you do. You should use a soil for succulents instead.
Why over-watering results in soft trunk in a ponytail palm
Many people do not understand the chain of cause and effect properly here. Let me explain it to you. The excess water does not directly cause the trunk to soften. What it does cause, however, is the root rot. And when the roots start to rot, two things will happen:
- They won’t be able to transfer all necessary nutrients to the plant anymore.
- The trunk will also start rotting, as rot always progresses through the plant.
Now you know what’s going on–that you actually have a rotting plant in the pot. To help with the diagnosis, you can do a few things:
- Check the moisture of the soil. If it is wet, almost always wet, even a week or two after you watered the palm the last time, something’s wrong.
- Gently uncover some roots and check their color and structure. If they are brown or even dark and relatively soft, and perhaps even smell badly, there are certainly rotten.
We will look at possible remedies in a second, but before that let me look at two other reasons of this problem.
Over-fertilization as no. 2 reason for ponytail soft trunk
Ponytail thrives in neglect. Regardless of what they tell you in your florist or gardening shop, you do not need to buy that over-priced fertilizer. Because using it you can actually kill your plant. Think about it in this way: Ponytail palm is native to arid areas of southern Mexico. The soil there is pretty arid, lacking many nutrients. And yet the palms live there and thrive. Why would you think they need anything different at your house?
Let me again explain you the cause of chain and effect, that means what happens when you over-fertilize your ponytail palm (which is actually quite easy to do):
- The fertilizer will burn the roots of the plant. In some cases they may completely fall apart, but in many cases they will simply lose the ability to perform their function well (transferring water and minerals from the soil to the plant).
- The body of the plant does not get what it needs, and little by little loses its structure and firmness.
- Eventually the trunk will become almost soft on touch, and the palm may die.
If you fertilized your ponytail palm recently, or with some strong fertilizer, or used bigger quantity of fertilizer, this is likely the problem you face here.
Rare fungal infection as a no. 3 reason of your ponytail palm trunk softening
If you rule out over-watering and over-fertilization, and are 100% sure they aren’t to blame here, your ponytail palm may face a rare issue here: a special type of fungal infection. Fungal infections aren’t common to succulents, but in some instances they may suffer from them. For example when the palm suffered some mechanical damage, you left the wounds on the trunk untreated, and the fungi entered, for example “jumping over” from another plant you have in the same room. Let me again explain what happens in this case:
- The fungi enters the ponytail palm. At the start you barely notices any issues, and the superficial wound on the trunk may even heal.
- Slowly but surely, the fungi spreads out in the plant, slowly “eating” the tissues. Again you may not notice anything from outside.
- Eventually the palm is so damaged that its loses its firmness and the trunk becomes soft. In some cases the palm can coexist with the fungi for years, in other cases it may simply die.
Diagnosing this problem isn’t easy, since you can often observe nothing from outside. Hence the best thing you can do is ruling out other, more likely cases of the issues–over-watering and over-fertilization. When you can rule them out, and do remember a mechanical damage your ponytail plant suffered in last 12 months, the chances are high the soft trunk is caused by some fungal infection.
Can you save a ponytail palm with a soft trunk?
Now you may wonder whether you can save your palm. At the end of the day, it may be a special gift, it may have been with you for years or decades, or you simply don’t want to lose it from one reason or another. But I don’t have good news for you: If you do not notice the problem early enough, chances are high your ponytail palm will die. Let me explain it.
In both first and second case (over-watering and over-fertilization) root rot preceded the soft trunk. And if the roots have rotten to a considerable extent, that means (almost) no healthy roots are left on the plant, you cannot save it. If you spot the problem early, however, you can try to following:
- Take the palm out of its original pot (this may not be easy with older palms, and sometimes you’ll have to cut the pot to pieces just to get the plant out).
- Clean the roots from all dirt (even in water) and identify rotten parts. Healthy roots have whitish color, are firm, and do not smell bad. Anything else is rotten.
- Cut away all rotten roots and leave just the healthy ones on the plant. As long as there are at least some healthy roots, you have a chance.
- Place the plant in a new pot. Make sure to use succulent soil, and a pot with drainage hole.
- From now on avoid mistakes from the past, be it over-watering or fertilization.
In some cases your ponytail palm may recover, but in many it won’t. At least you know you gave it a shot, and tried to save the plant. If it doesn’t work, learn your lesson and move on. Hope it helps, and good luck with your ponytail palm!
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