Species Spotlight – Portulacaria afra

Species Spotlight – Portulacaria afra

All About Growing 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.

{Please note, some links in this post may be affiliate links to sites that pay me a small commission if you click on the link and make a purchase. This commission is at absolutely no cost to you. I only recommend products and companies that I have worked with and truly love! ~Kat}

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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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Linda Alexander

    Here in Tucson, elephant food has long been a popular choice for landscaping. The plant thrives under the hottest of conditions and yet holds up well in mild freezes. But if, like me, you live in a neighborhood populated with javelinas, be sure to grow your elephant food out of reach, like on a high bench or table. The peccaries love, love, love to munch on elephant food. The stuff is irresistible to them and it’s great fun to watch them in their ecstasy. Sadly, a single band of hungry javelinas can completely demolish your elephant food in just a few minutes. Poor me, I know this from first-hand experience — but it was very entertaining!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Linda,
      Wow! I never heard of javelinas, and scurried over to Google to take a look! 🙂 That must have been quite a sight! I’m so sorry you lost your elephant bush! I guess we should start a new common name for it – javelina’s delight! 🙂
      Thanks so much for the info – I may update this post!
      ~Kat

  2. Jami

    Hello! Thank you for all the information. I recently received a large gallon of portulacaria variegata and it has some very small specs of black on the leaves. It doesn’t appear to have any kind of bug infestation and seems healthy otherwise. Is this something that I need to treat or is the a normal thing for them to have? I haven’t found a lot of information on it but one article said it is normal and nothing to worry about but it still bothers me. And I should mention it isn’t on all of the leaves. But still quite a few. Mostly the outer leaves. The spots are about the size of a pin head. Very small. Thanks for any help you can offer!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Jami,
      Unfortunately, there are a lot of tings that can cause a dark speck or spot on your leaves. Many are not a problem at all. Others can be a big deal. To give you the best advice, I would need to see some photos f what you’ve got. Please email me at Kat@thesucculenteclectic.com. I’ll be happy to take a look!
      Alternatively, you could take a stem or several marked leaves to your local nursery and have them look at it. They could likely give you good information.
      Thanks so much for reading!
      ~Kat

    2. Srinivasan

      Does it require any fertilizer to enhance its growth? I received the plant a month ago with more big leaves but now growth is too slow and I could see very small leaves may be 1 or 2 and leaves are fallen down quite often though I water them once a week and kept in South side window. Any tips? Thanks.

      1. Kat McCarthy

        Hello Srinivasan,
        If you live where you are having summer now, it could be that your plant is going dormant. They are a summer-dormant succulent.
        I like to fertilize my succulents once in spring and again in the fall. But they don’t *need* it, and yours is not dropping leaves because it wasn’t fertilized.
        It sounds like you need to lighten up on the water and just keep an eye on it. When you see more active top growth, resume regular watering.
        ~Kat

  3. Sarah B

    Hi Kat,
    I have mine in a pot so I can bring it inside during the winter (I live in Northern Utah). I had it by the window (west facing) and it dropped almost all of its leaves within months. I have it back outside in the sun and it seems to be growing them back. Was it not enough sun inside? Thanks!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Sarah,
      Did you perhaps stop watering? Sometimes a succulent like Portulacaria drops its leaves to stop losing water through the leaves.
      When you bring it indoors, the watering likely should slow, but only because the plant uses water more slowly indoors. Don’t leave it drier longer than when it is outdoors.
      And give it good, bright light inside. But I wouldn’t think the lighting indoors would cause the leaf drop.
      If your watering remained consistent, let me know!
      Thanks for the great question!
      ~Kat

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