- Division: Magnoliophyta
- Class: Liliopsida
- Order: Asparagales
- Family: Asparagacae
- Genus: Beaucarnea
- Species: recurvata
With long, flowing leaves that somewhat resemble the tail of a horse, and a gray trunk with a wide, fat base that resembles the foot of an elephant, it's no wonder that this tree is sometimes called an elephant foot tree, and other times is referred to as a ponytail palm. It's actually not a palm tree; it's a member of the Family Asperagacae—a group that includes asparagus, along with agave, and a wide variety of succulents. But call it what you will, the Beaucarnea recurvata is one odd-looking tree—from its bulbous base or caudex, to its skinnier and often curvaceous trunk, to its crown (or multiple crowns) with cascading long, strap-like leaves up to six feet long, reminiscent of a mop of wild hair. You might think that only Dr. Seuss could have designed a tree like this one.
Ponytail palms grow less than one foot per year. When mature, they can reach an average height of 12 to 18 feet—and in tropical climates, these trees can grow up to 30 feet tall. The distinctive, fat trunk base stores water, allowing the tree to survive during drought conditions. The bark at the base of the tree is rough and heavily textured, resembling the thick skin of a pachyderm. In spring or summer, clusters of flowers appear as tufts from the tree's crown or at the ends of branches, attracting bees and other pollinators. Male trees produce clusters of creamy white or yellow blossoms, while the female tree's flowers are pink. The female trees produce seeds; the male trees do not.
Ponytail palms are especially popular as houseplants, because they grow well indoors in pots, and will remain small if kept in a small container. Even the pint-size versions display the ponytail palm's signature bulbous trunk base, and a potted ponytail palm often mimics the shape of a Hershey's kiss topped by a single flowing crown of stringy leaves. Indoor plants require regular watering, but the soil should be allowed to dry out between waterings.
Full-size ponytail palm trees grow well in dry, frost-free climates. Trees are available from nurseries, or they can be grown from seeds or from small offsets that appear on the base of the trunk. During spring, offsets can be cut off the tree and started as new plants. Growers sometimes cut the trunk of a young ponytail palm before it reaches a diameter of six inches, in order to produce multiple branches, or "three-headed" trees.
Ponytail palms are endemic to southeastern Mexico, and many are found in Veracruz and Oaxaca. Their native range extends from Honduras to Mexico in a variety of habitats, from semi-desert to low deciduous forest. Threats these native trees face include habitat loss from increasing human development and illegal harvesting for international trade in ornamental plants. Although the species as a whole is considered stable and is widely cultivated for sale as houseplants and landscaping trees, the Mexican government classifies Beaucarnea recurvata as threatened and at risk of extinction in the wild.
Perhaps the Zoo's most eye-catching elephant foot tree is located in the Beaucarnea forest—featuring four species, including Beaucarnea recurvata—at the entrance to the Harry and Grace Steele Elephant Odyssey, near the Jim and Dianne Bashor Bridge. This tall tree has a base that measures 10 feet wide. It was donated to the Zoo back in 1960, when it was a mature 27-year-old specimen. The massive tree was moved to Elephant Odyssey from its former location at the Flamingo Lagoon in 2008.