How to Grow and Care for Portulacaria Afra

Portulacaria afra

Quick Overview

Plant Type: Perennial
Family: Didiereaceae
Sun Exposure: Full to partial sun
Watering: Low but with regularity
Colors: Green
Size: 6 to 8 feet height
Hardiness Zones: 9-11
Soil Type: Loam, Sand. Well-drained
Soil pH: 5.6 to 6.5
Propagation: By root sections of stems or cuttings
Toxicity: Non-toxic

The Portulacaira Afra, commonly called the Elephant Bush, is native to South Africa. It is also sometimes called porkbush, spekboom, or “mini jade” for its similarity to the jade plant. It is a popular succulent plant in gardens all over the world. 

The Portulacaira Afra is a low-maintenance succulent that enjoys bright light and warm temperatures. If you don’t live in a warm climate, it is best to keep these plants indoors. Though they can be frost tolerant for short periods, they do not like the cold. Be sure your plant is in well-draining soil and water it only when the top inch of the soil is dry. When it needs to be watered will vary depending on where you live. Overall, it’s an attractive plant that grows well singularly or can make an attractive addition to a cluster of succulents in your home. 

As with most succulents, there are a couple of tricks to know to keep your elephant bush happy and thriving. If you keep your plant healthy, there are several interesting uses for it! Keep reading to learn more and follow the below guidelines to ensure you have a unique, visually interesting plant to brighten up your home! 

Portulacaria Afra

About the Portulacaria Afra (Elephant Bush)

The elephant bush is native succulent to South Africa. However, unlike other of its South African succulent counterparts, it can handle humidity and rain. 

The plant is hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 9-11 (places like California, Arizona, Florida, and Hawaii). In their native environment, they are fed upon by elephants. In fact, they can make up to 80% of an elephant’s diet. 

They have thick brown stems with small paddle-shaped green leaves. These leaves are thick and plump with water. Many compare their appearance to that of the Jade plant. In fact, these plants look very similar to one another and are often mistaken for each other. 

The plants go dormant in the winter, but in the spring, they can bloom. When they bloom, they produce tiny pink flowers that grow in a cluster on branch tips. However, this phenomenon is rarer when they are kept as houseplants. 

Their branches can be trained to grow upright. The bush can also be used in hanging baskets, where the long woody stems will hang over the side. 

Portulacaria Afra

Portulacaria Afra: Growing and Care

Growth

Outdoors, elephant bushes can grow between 6-12 feet. But as a houseplant, they will likely only grow around 1-2 feet. 

The elephant bush begins as a small bush with light green stems. The stem thickens as the plant matures and becomes woodier and red-brown. 

Outdoors and in the wild, it can eventually grow tree-like. It will often develop a bark as it matures. 

In its natural habitat, it prefers to grow on rocky slopes. 

Temperature

In most areas of the country, it is best to grow your elephant bush inside your home because they prefer consistently warm climates. 

Be sure to keep it in a warm room and avoid placing it somewhere where it will be subject to drafts. 

If you do keep your elephant bushes outdoors, know that they do not like the cold. Although, they are somewhat resilient when it is mature. If they are not exposed to extended or severe cold, they typically can bounce back. 

Overall, if you have extreme weather variances in your region, it would be best to keep your elephant bush indoors. Alternatively, you might plant it in a container, where it can be moved then it becomes too cold outside. 

If your plant is outdoors and you receive an unexpected cold or frost, you can cover your bushes in frost cloths or a mini greenhouse to protect them. 

Portulacaria Afra

Light & Soil

Elephant bushes love bright, indirect sunlight. Ideally, they are exposed to it for about 5-6 hours a day. 

They can tolerate sunnier rooms, but if you place them somewhere where the sun is too bright consistently, it can burn the leaves. This sunburn will cause the leaves to fall from the plant. 

Indoors, try to put your plant in a south-facing room that will have bright light. If your south-facing windows are not getting enough light, then any window will do. Just be sure that your plant receives plenty of sunlight each day. 

If where you live does not have adequate sunlight, or goes through seasons where sunlight is low, consider buying a growing light. This can provide supplementary lighting for your plant. 

These succulents need well-drained soil. Use a clay or terracotta pot that will absorb extra moisture from the soil. And be sure that whatever planter you choose has good drainage holes. 

Cactus soil is most common. Consider incorporating vermiculite, perlite, or sand to increase its drainage. 

If you plant your elephant bush outdoors, chose sand or gritty soil (soil that will ensure proper damage). Plant a new elephant bush about two inches deep. 

These succulents prefer pH-neutral soil. 

elephant bush

Watering Portulacaria Afra

As with most succulents, the most challenging part of elephant bush care is developing a proper watering schedule. What works best for your elephant bush may vary slightly depending on the climate where you live. 

Elephant bushes are drought tolerant if they do not receive a lot of water, so do not be alarmed if you are unable to water your plant regularly for some time. In dryer climates, a good rule of thumb is once every 7-10 days in the summer months and even less as the weather gets colder. If you live somewhere more humid, you will not need to water as much, as the plants will get some of their moisture from the air. 

Before you water, always check the soil. Do not water the plant unless the top inch is dry. Of course, you can always purchase a water meter, as well, to help identify when the soil is wet and dry. 

In winter, the plants go dormant and do not need water.

Portulacaria Afra Fertilization

Generally speaking, it is best to fertilize your elephant bush in late winter/early spring with indoor plant fertilizer. During these months – the growing season – you can fertilize your elephant bush once a month. 

Dilute the fertilizer by half. Be sure to use a succulent or cactus-oriented fertilizer. 

If your plant’s leaves are turning yellow, this could mean that they are lacking in nutrients and may need attention. 

If you have not repotted your plant for a couple of years, the soil might be depleted. This depletion can happen even if you have been fertilizing. 

Remember, you are constantly washing and watering your plant, which then drains through the plant’s drainage holes. These actions slowly deplete the soil. 

Consider repotting your plant with fresh, nutrient-rich soil to help it thrive. 

Portulacaria Afra

Propagating Portulacaria Afra

The elephant bush is easy to propagate from plant cuttings. With some succulents, you can snap cuttings with your fingers. But with the elephant bush, you will need sharp, clean shears to cut through the woody stem. 

Take cuttings from your plant in spring or summer for optimal results. And allow your cutting to dry out and harden around the tip for a couple of days before placing it in damp soil. 

Be sure to keep the soil moist and warm during the early days of your new plant. 

You can also root from the leaves of the elephant bush. If fallen leaves are left in the soil or placed in new soil, they will develop their roots. 

However, this process is slower than when you propagate from cuttings, so many prefer cutting as the better method. Though, this can be useful to know before throwing away dropped leaves! 

elephant bush

Pests & Diseases

You should have no significant issues with your elephant bush and pests.

Sometimes they can attract whitefly, spider mites, and mealybugs. If this happens, use a natural substance like neem oil to kill the larvae. 

If your plant is infested with mealybugs and whiteflies, you should rinse off your plant to dislodge the larvae on the leaves and nodes. Do this before applying neem oil. 

Other Problems

Other minor problems can impact your elephant bush plant. 

  • Drooping leaves: This is most often reflective of issues with your watering schedule. It can occur both when you are overwatering and underwatering, so it is up to you to pay attention to your plant and adjust your watering as you think best. 
  • Leaves Turning Yellow: This is a sign of stress on your plant and can happen if the environment is not quite what it needs. Look to see if your plant’s soil is draining properly. If it is, consider fertilizing your plant. It may be lacking in nutrients if you have not repotted your plant in a couple of years. 
  • Rotting: if you severely overwater your elephant bush, it can cause the plant’s roots to rot. This will happen only in extreme cases of overwatering. 

Portulacaria Afra Considerations

Environmental Impacts

Like many succulents, the elephant bush has excellent carbon-storing capabilities. This is highly beneficial for the environment. 

Fire

Elephant bush is considered a “firewise” crop, meaning that can offer a layer of protection against fire. 

This protection is caused because their leaves hold quite a bit of water, which will cause them to be slow to burn. In some instances, they only char, while their tree counterparts burn completely. 

For this reason, they are used in South Africa and some areas in the United States to in fire-prone regions. To be used against fire, they are planted on the perimeter of a property or home. This offers a buffer against flames, along with other fire-wise succulent plants. 

Because the elephant bush can grow several feet in height, you can see why this might be useful. 

Bonsai

This plant can also be grown as a bonsai tree. Variegated options must be used to properly grow these bushes as bonsai. 

Toxicity 

Elephant bushes are edible and non-toxic to both people and pets! 

In fact, they are eaten in native cultures. Elephant plants are high in vitamin C and can add crunch to a salad or into soups. Their taste is sometimes described as sour. 

Traditionally, it was once used for medicinal purposes in South Africa. 

Blooming

It is rare for elephant bushes to grow as houseplants. But they can bloom in their natural habitat, or in places like California, where they can be planted in the ground. 

If you want to encourage your elephant bush to bloom, ensure it has proper lighting and environmental conditions. It must also go through a wintering/dormant period. 

When they do bloom, they produce clusters of five-petaled pink, purple, and white flowers that perch on the end of their stems. They are star-shaped and very tiny. 

Varieties

There are many varieties of elephant bushes. 

Portulacaria Afra “Variegata”

The most common variegation of the elephant bush is the portulacaria Afra “Variegata.” This variety is also referred to as the variegated elephant bush or the rainbow bush. 

These varieties are similar in appearance to the portulacaria Afra, but their leaves have a cream color tinge and stripes of green. 

Portulacaria Afra Elephant Bush Mammoth

This variety has large leaves that grow to be twice the size of portulacaria afra. 

Their stem is very similar to the portulacaria afra. Their leaves become less shiny as they grow.

Portulacaria Afra Elephant Bush Minima

As the name might suggest, this variety is much smaller than the portulacaria afra. Again, its stem is very similar to that of the portulacaria afra, but the leaves are small and shiny. 

It is sometimes called the “low form” or “elephant mat.” 

Final Thoughts

Elephant bushes are attractive succulents. They are simple to care for. And they require little maintenance once you get them settled with proper light and a consistent watering schedule. To top it off, they are easy to propagate into more plants! 

Consider planting your elephant bush by itself in a container, in a hanging basket, or a succulent garden. And enjoy its unique appearance year-round!

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