You are currently viewing Species Spotlight – Portulacaria afra

Species Spotlight – Portulacaria afra

Portulacaria (Port-yoo-luh-CARE-ee-ah) is a small genus of upright, semi-woody succulents indigenous to South Africa. The stems are thick, succulent and brown to burgundy, with small, round jade green leaves. Planted in the ground and allowed to grow to its full height, Portulacaria will tower up to 15 feet high. It is commonly called elephant food plant or elephant bush, for its largest foragers and is a favorite of black rhinos, kudu and domesticated goats and cattle. It’s also known as dwarf jade plant for its similarity in appearance to Crassula, as well as Spekboom in Afrikaans. The genus is comprised of just a few species, by far the most popular of which is Portulacaria afra. This is one of my all-time favorite succulents to grow. Read on to learn why.

All About Growing Portulacaria afra

Long-Lived Portulacaria afra

Portulacaria afra or Spekboom plant

There are many reasons to love Portulacaria afra. It is incredibly easy to grow, and both quick and easy to propagate. I used it to demonstrate how to propagate succulents from stem cuttings. It also makes a terrific plant to learn tree pruning on, reliably sprouting two new branches at the site of every proper pruning cut. It is a pet-safe succulent and safe to grow around small children. The texture and coloring of the elephant bush are wonderful for any mixed succulent planter or arrangement.

I love working with Portulacaria and have used it in both these succulent cork planters and my tree branch succulent planters. But the real reason this plant is so dear to me is related to how long-lived it is, and conversely, tough to kill. Spekboom will happily live and grow for up to 200 years. A few years after he was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my Dad gave me a bowl of succulents. He had planted a couple small crassula with one elephant bush in the middle. At the time, it was maybe 6″ tall at the top, with a couple smaller stems to either side. It grew for a few years into a sizable plant.


I was in the middle of transplanting my Portulacaria when I got the call that my Dad was gone. I left the plant right where it was — out of its pot, root ball bare, sitting on concrete in a shaded spot, and raced to his bedside. It was over six months before I went back out into my garden and found this Spekboom plant he had given me, sitting alone where I had left it. It was cheerfully growing without water, without sun and as healthy as could be. I still have this plant, 15 years later, and I cherish it for so many reasons.

Portulacaria afra & Carbon Sequestration

Portulacaria afra or elephant bush

Portulacaria evolved to become especially water efficient during photosynthesis and respiration, holding onto its stores of moisture. In the process, it became one of the best natural carbon sponges in the world. It’s better at capturing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and fixing it in its own fibers and the soil than nearly any other plant. This is known as carbon sequestration. Acre for acre, Portulacaria afra is more effective at removing carbon from the environment than the rain forest. To improve the air quality in or around your home or to combat global warming — plant Portulacaria afra!

Samara Private Game Reserve in the Great Karoo of South Africa has launched a conservation effort to plant Spekboom. Their mission is to replant the areas overgrazed by the livestock of the indigenous people. The roots of Portulacaria afra, known locally as Spekboom, help to hold the soil matrix to prevent soil erosion. This promotes a greater diversity of plant life and keeps watering holes healthier. Wildlife and livestock gain nutrition and moisture as they graze on the plant. And the growing stands of elephant bush combat global warming.


Portulacaria afra Variegata

Portulacaria afra Variegata

Portulacaria afra has a few subspecies. They differ primarily in their leaf size and shape or the growth of the stems. My favorite is the Portulacaria afra Variegata. The small leaves are pale green with a clear, cream variegation. The stems are a rich, vibrant red to burgundy, and the growth habit is arching and semi-trailing. Stress causes the leaf margins to turn bright pink. This lovely variety is wonderful mixed with other succulents and arching over the edge of a planter.

Portulacaria afra Flower

flowering branch of Portulacaria afra or Spekboom plant

Portulacaria afra flowers only when it is grown in the ground in conditions similar to its native habitat. Each tiny pink blossom is star-shaped and made up of 5 pointed petals. Borne at the end of the stem in clusters, they are rich in nectar and wildly attractive to bees and other insects. Flowering elephant bush are popular plants with songbirds who gather to feed on the insects surrounding the blooms. Once pollinated, each flower will develop into a tiny fruit bearing a single seed.

Portulacaria afra Bonsai

Portulacaria afra bonsai tree

Portulacaria afra is a popular subject for bonsai enthusiasts. It grows quickly, is naturally tolerant of low moisture and can be trained into the form of a majestic tree. Many bonsai artists will score the stem of the plant, giving it the appearance of shaggy, gnarled bark. Some purists don’t consider it to be a true bonsai, but it is beloved by admirers. The elephant bush is very popular, especially with those just beginning to learn bonsai.


Portulacaria afra Care

water dripping from Portulacaria afra or elephant bush leaf

Watering

Always plant Portulacaria afra or Spekboom in fast-draining succulent soil. Water thoroughly and only when the soil is dry. Remember that it stores water primarily in its trunk, rather than the leaves. When you’re watching for signs the succulent is over- or under-watered, keep an eye on those stems. This is a good variety to monitor the health through touch, checking that the stems remain plump and fairly rigid.

Elephant bush is dormant in summer, with an active growing period in winter. If you find your plant looking or feeling sub par, check first to see if it is dormant. If it is a dormancy issue, simply back off the amount of water you provide until the seasons change and your plant wakes up.

Lighting

Spekboom is very simple to care for. While it prefers bright light to full sun, it can adapt to growing in quite a bit of shade or even indoors. Portulacaria afra Variegata is an especially good choice for growing indoors. I have a plant whose leaves have doubled in size, as the plant strives to maximize its absorption of light in a shady spot.

Propagation

diagam of where to take cuttings from Portulacaria afra

Portulacaria afra is one of the easiest succulents to propagate. While it can be grown from seed, of course, it is most often propagated from stem cuttings. When an elephant pushes through a stand of Spekboom, it tears up a trunkful of the plant, trampling other stems beneath its feet. The plant evolved to tolerate and accommodate this rough handling — making any breakage an opportunity to propagate! When a stem is broken (by you or a foraging elephant!) just above the spot where new leaves form, it stimulates the meristem tissue of the mother plant to develop new branches. This is such a fun plant to grow!



You can also propagate it from individual leaves, though this is a bit slow. And often, the pots of elephant bush you purchase at a nursery are made of up of separate plants that can easily be divided.

Is Portulacaria Toxic to Pets?

Pet Safe Succulent

Portulacaria afra is non-toxic and safe to grow around cats and dogs as well as small children — even the nibblers!

This symbol denotes pet-safe succulents. For more information about succulents and pets, just click on this image anywhere on this site.

Shopping for Portulacaria afra

Portulacaria afra or Spekboom plant

You’ll find Portulacaria afra is an easy plant to locate at your local nursery or online. Mountain Crest Gardens offers four varieties here, including my favorite Portulacaria afra Variegata. You can find rooted plants or cuttings on Amazon. You can even find a beautiful bonsai Portulacaria there.

Whether you’re looking for a stellar succulent for mixed arrangement, want to try your hand at propagation, or just want to grow your collection, I hope you will try growing Portulacaria afra. If you have any questions, please just leave a comment and I’ll get right back to you!

Happy gardening!

P.S. For more succulent care information, please subscribe to The Succulent Eclectic! I’ll send you my FREE e-course 7 Steps to Succulent Success!

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P.P.S. Why not join my Facebook Group for succulent-lovers? We talk succulent care, propagation, succulent identification and design. It’s a warm and welcoming group that would love to meet you!




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