Even though it is called a palm, the ponytail palm is not a palm. Instead, it’s a tree-like succulent with a bulbous trunk that stores water for dry periods.
Perhaps this is why most people fail to properly care for it, causing the trunk to become soft.
Overwatering is the most common cause of softening or dying of your ponytail palm trunk, but temperature, drainage, and light can also be factors. Look for signs of root rot in the root system. If it is, cut off the affected roots and repot your plant in new soil.
Why Is My Ponytail Palm Trunk Soft/Dead?
The ponytail palm is a very tough succulent, which is something you should know.
It has a high tolerance to drought, which means it can take a lot of abuse and neglect before it dies.
But because their bulbous trunk bases hold water, ponytail palms often get stem and root rot.
As a result, the tree’s trunk will deteriorate, weaken, or succumb as the disease spreads.
Root rot doesn’t just appear out of thin air, of course. Any of the following may contribute to or exacerbate the issue:
The ponytail palm is native to southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, growing in semi-arid to arid conditions.
So naturally, there isn’t much rain here. However, numerous unique characteristics distinguish the plants that grow in these regions, allowing them to survive and thrive in such harsh conditions.
Beaucarnea recurvata is an outstanding example of this.
Almost every aspect of this plant is intended to help it survive in these dry and hot environments, from the swollen stem to the thin grass-like foliage to the cascading appearance.
Ponytail palms thrive in harsh conditions, but these same traits cause problems as houseplants.
These plants must rely on their robust root systems and stem to absorb and store water in these arid environments for long periods.
You can oversaturate your plant’s roots when you water it too frequently.
However, if the overwatering problem is not addressed, the roots will deteriorate and develop root rot.
Meanwhile, the rot disease will spread upwards, resulting in a mushy trunk.
Ponytail palms’ yellowing leaves, mushy brown leaf tips, and brown spots on foliage are all symptoms of overwatering.
Also, the soil can give off a robust rotting odor; if you don’t do something, like change how you water, your valuable plant will eventually die from rot disease.
How to Prevent Overwatering in Ponytail Palms
Watering a Beaucarnea recurvata properly can be difficult for some gardeners, especially beginners.
This is because the frequency of irrigation is typically determined by a variety of factors, including:
- Its size
- Amount of light it gets
- Mixture & consistency of its potting medium
- Size of the pot
- Temperature around your plant
- Frequency of fertilization
During the growing season, you should water your ponytail palm every 7 to 14 days if it is in a container (from early spring through summer).
However, you should only water it once a month during winter because it prefers a reasonably dry winter climate.
Another method for determining how much water your potted indoor plant needs is to perform a finger soil moisture test and weigh the results.
Of course, the most effective method is to use a reliable soil moisture meter (Check the latest price on Amazon here).
If you live in an area that receives regular rainfall, you don’t need to water your ponytail palm very often.
However, in drought or dry climates, bi-weekly watering should be fine.
In any case, you should let the soil dry out between waterings.
 Poor Drainage
Ponytail palms that live in pots are more likely to get root rot disease because fungi and bacteria that cause root decay thrive in damp places.
As a result, poor drainage sets things in motion and eventually leads to the tree’s trunk softening or dying.
In my experience, poor drainage is usually a secondary cause of stem and root rot. Factors that contribute to it are:
- The wrong choice of potting soil –Soils that are heavy, clayey, or high in organic content tend to retain moisture for an extended period. So, they tend to stay wet for a long time and dry into a rugged, compact mass. In any case, consistently wet roots are a recipe for rot disease.
- Insufficient drainage holes – Succulents should be housed in containers with drainage holes to allow excess fluid to escape.
- Wrong size pot – You may want to give your ponytail palm more growth room—bad idea. Too much potting medium creates breeding grounds for pathogens and soggy dead zones.
- Using the wrong type of pot – Glazed or plastic pots trap water and encourage waterlogging. Clay and terracotta pots are porous and let the soil breathe.
How to Fix Poor Drainage
A poor drainage issue is easy to solve once identified. Some quick fixes include:
- Check the pot’s drainage holes.
- Repot your ponytail palm using a well-draining soil mixture with sharp sand, perlite, small gravel, and some peat for richness. I suggest a succulent or cactus mix (Amazon link).
- Using a non-glazed clay or terracotta pot.
- Correct container size.
 Low Light
Ponytail palms are succulents that thrive in the sun. They can’t get enough of it and will thrive in well-lit areas of your home.
However, sometimes during the winter, the sunlight is sporadic, inconsistent, or absent entirely.
Therefore, continued irrigating your plant will result in overwatering.
Ponytail palms are adapted to hot, sunny climates where evaporation and water use are higher.
Since the soil retains moisture for longer in darker areas, it’s more likely to develop root rot in these areas.
A sad plant with slowed growth should alert you to a lack of light. The leaves may also appear droopier, thinner, and softer to the touch.
How to Fix
These succulents will thrive in direct or indirect sunlight. Place your ponytail palm in the brightest spot in your home as an indoor houseplant.
I prefer a window that faces south, west, or east and receives plenty of indirect light or 6+ hours of direct sunlight.
You might want to take your plant outside during the summer to take advantage of the abundant sunlight.
However, the transition must be gradual for your plant to acclimate to the increase in temperature and sunlight, avoiding sunburn and transplant shock.
 Low Temperature
Regular watering may be excessive if temperatures fall below 50°F (10°C), resulting in overwatering and root rot.
This may not be a problem in your house’s controlled climate, but keep in mind that warmer temperatures affect evaporation and water consumption.
Water that splashes on the leaves and trunk during watering may take longer to evaporate, attracting fungal infections.
In addition, root rot and fungal diseases can cause trunk softening or decay if left untreated.
How to Fix
- You should place your ponytail palm in warm, arid weather above 60°F (15°C).
- Gradually acclimate your plant to its new environment when relocating it from indoors to the outdoors.
The biggest threat to ponytail palms is overwatering. But, on the other hand, a dying trunk can be caused by not getting enough water.
So even though they’re designed to withstand periods of aridity, these hardy succulents have their limits.
If you don’t water your plant for too long, it will get stressed, and the trunk will show signs of trouble.
Other telltale signs of underwatering include dead foliage, crispy leaves, and brown tips on the ends of the leaves.
You can detect severe dehydration by feeling the soil, which will be bone-dry and dusty. Due to insufficient or no water content, the container will also feel lighter.
How to Fix
You can solve the dehydration problem by thoroughly watering your plant. Then, allow the soil to soak up water in a sink to ensure it is completely saturated.
 Other Contributing Factors
Other minor factors that may contribute to the softening of the ponytail palms trunk include:
- Inadequate air circulation.
- Not cleaning out the drip tray, cachepot, etc.
- You are planting your ponytail palm too deeply, burying the trunk beneath the soil line.
- Continuing to water during the off-season.
What to Do If Your Ponytail Palm Has a Soft Trunk?
Check the Root System
If the trunk of your ponytail palm is soft, the real problem could be root rot hiding below the soil.
But you must be sure it is root rot by looking at the leaves for mushy brown tips and dark brown, water-soaked spots.
If these signs of root rot are visible on the leaves, the next step is to dig up your plant and check the root system.
Then, turn the container on its side and carefully take your plant out of its pot.
Time is of the essence. If root rot is not treated, your beautiful Beaucarnea recurvata will die.
The best thing to do will depend on how bad the root rot is.
Scenario #1: Roots are Strong, But the Trunk is Soft
Roots that are white and firm are a sign of a healthy plant.
That’s a good sign that you caught the problem early and the roots haven’t been harmed by overwatering.
Your plant can be repotted if the container has adequate drainage holes and the soil isn’t too wet.
Bring it to a warm, sunny place to let the soil dry out thoroughly before you water it again.
You may have given your ponytail palm too much water, and it has responded by consuming all the extra fluid you gave it.
As a result of having too much water in the tissue, the trunk became squishy.
You must allow the soil to dry out between waterings to prevent this from happening again.
Two to three inches of the top layer of soil should be completely dry before the next watering.
Ensure the container is made of something porous and easy to drain, like clay.
Scenario #2: Soft Trunk with Mild Signs of Root Rot
If your ponytail palm with a soft trunk shows mild root rot, you’re lucky because you can still nurse it back to health. This is usually the case when nearly all roots are still firm and white.
You’ll need to rinse the roots and use a sharp, sterile pair of scissors to remove any dead, dying, or affected ones.
Then, before repotting your ponytail palm, prepare it. You might need to use a fungicide drench, hydrogen peroxide, or homemade solutions like cinnamon.
Keep in mind that root rot doesn’t usually require much. Reduce the amount of water you give your plant, wait for the soil to dry out, and keep a close eye on it.
This means you won’t have to deal with the adverse effects of repotting, which can complicate the recovery of your already-weakened ponytail palm.
Once it’s fixed, don’t water too much to keep this from happening again.
Scenario #3: When Root Rot is Too Severe
If the entire root system has turned to soft mush and there is a solid rotting odor, your ponytail palm may be dead.
You can’t save your plant, so it’s best to dispose of it. Dispose of it properly to avoid the spread of pathogens to other healthy plants.
How to Revive Rotting Ponytail Palm
Step #1 – Gather Your Supplies
I recommend having the following tools and supplies handy:
- A sterile cutting tool, whether a pair of scissors, pruning shears, or even a sharp knife
- A new batch of potting soil
- A new, sterile pot
- A pair of clean gloves
Step #2 – Clean Your Tools
All instruments must be sterile. If in doubt, use rubbing alcohol or a 10% chlorine solution to clean them.
I usually make my own by combining one part liquid bleach with nine parts distilled or bottled water.
Step #3 – Unpot your Ponytail Palm
You may have already removed your ponytail palm from its container at this point.
If this is the case, proceed to the next step. Otherwise, you must remove your plant and all of its soil from its pot.
Step #4 – Cutoff Rotten roots
Trimming off unsightly, affected, or diseased plant parts is time.
For starters, you must use a sharp pair of scissors to snip off all roots that look unhealthy or questionable.
These are usually dark brown or black and mushy.
Step #5 – Rinse the Healthy Roots
This is an obvious step: you must remove all of the old soil. Next, rinse the remaining healthy roots with clean lukewarm water (preferably distilled, filtered, or bottled water).
To ensure that all pathogens are eliminated, I recommend using a fungicide dip or drench at the end of the rinse.
Step #6 – Let Them Air Dry
Air-drying the rinsed healthy roots serves multiple purposes:
- It eliminates any remaining pathogens.
- Airing out the roots helps your plant recover.
- It allows the freshly cut roots to callus.
Allowing the roots to air dry for 24 hours should suffice. If the root system appears dehydrated, wrap a damp towel around it.
Step #7 – Discard Old Potting Mix
It is best never to reuse the old potting mix when dealing with root rot. Instead, discard and clean and sterilize the pot if you intend to reuse it (which I also do not recommend).
Step #8 – Repot your Ponytail Palm
The repotting process is easy enough:
- Choose the right pot – a smaller terracotta pot that confines the roots is ideal for ponytail palms.
- Choose the right potting mix for your plant – an arid soil mixture is best. 2 parts cactus mix to 1 part sand, pumice, or perlite. A small amount of peat can help with richness.
- Soil should cover two-thirds of the pot.
- Plant your ponytail palm, ensuring the entire trunk is above ground.
- Fill the remaining space in the pot.
- Water thoroughly.
Step #9 – Re-evaluate Your Care Routine
The best way to deal with a problem is to stop it from happening in the first place.
Avoid overwatering your plant by waiting until the soil is dry to the touch before watering again.
Allow at least 6 hours or plenty of bright, indirect light.
How To Prevent Ponytail Palm Soft Trunk
Here are some tried-and-true methods for keeping your ponytail palm trunk from becoming soft:
- Water your Ponytail Palm once every 1-2 weeks.
- Ensure good drainage.
- Don’t pour water over the crown or trunk of your plant.
- Provide bright indirect light or full sun.
- Ensure ample air circulation.