Succulents

Guide to Portulacaria Afra Plants: How to Grow & Care for “Elephant Bush”

Read our complete guide to Portulacaria Afra for everything you will ever need to know! Tips for planting and caring for the "Elephant Bush"
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If you are looking for an adorable and exotic succulent for your indoor or outdoor garden, the South-African Portulacaria Afra is a great choice. Why? Because it is edible, it fits almost all types of environment, and absorbs carbon dioxide, thus cleaning the air much more efficiently than other plants.

Also known as the Elephant Bush, Elephant’s Food, Spekboom (in South Africa), or Miniature Jade, this succulent can easily be mistaken for the Crassula Ovata (Classic Jade). The main difference between the two is how they support themselves. Portulacaria Afra doesn’t grow upright and it often needs support as it tends to droop, while the Crassula Ovata supports itself.

Portulacaria Afra, also know as "Elephant Bush"
Portulacaria Afra, also know as “Elephant Bush”

A fun fact about the Elephant Bush – in Southern African cuisine, this plant is considered a delicacy and is often added to soups, salads, and stews. Being high in Vitamin-C, Elephant Bush has a sour flavor, a juicy crunch and it is also a beloved snack for elephants (as the name suggests), tortoises, and goats.

Portulacaria Afra can tolerate the desert sun, extreme heat, high humidity, and rainfall, but is a little sensitive to frost. In optimal conditions, it can reach 6 to 8 feet tall and can spread indefinitely. Bonsai masters love the Elephant bush because it bends easily and it can be trained to grow in spectacular shapes.

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About Portulacaria Afra

The Portulacaria Afra or the Elephant Bush is a perennial succulent shrub native to South Africa. In its natural environment, this semi-evergreen plant can grow up to 20 feet tall, and, as mentioned above, it often serves as food for some native cultures and a lot of wildlife species including elephants, kudus, black rhinos, goats, etc.

The leaves of the Elephant Bush are glossy green and its stems are reddish-brown. The plant starts as a tiny bush and can reach 8-15 feet (2.5-4.5 meters). As the plant matures, its soft-wooded stems get thicker. The Elephant Bush is a versatile plant that thrives in many different climates, so growing and propagating it is quite easy.

Portulacaria afra Plant, From Amazon

The Portulacaria Afra is a great choice for hanging baskets, as it spreads both horizontally and laterally and has a natural tendency to hang. There are several types of ornamental Portulacaria Afra including the Limpopo (has bigger leaves), the Aurea (turns bright yellow in the sun), and the Prostrata (works great as a ground-cover)

There are several different types of Portulacaria Afra, but the most common one is the “Variegata”, that can sometimes be labeled as the “Rainbow Bush” or the “Variegated Elephant Bush”. This variation of the Elephant Bush is very similar to the regular Portulacaria Afra, but their leaves are more attractive as they can have different hues of green and cream stripes and the stems are a more pronounced shade of red. Another unique feature of the Variegata is its tendency to grow laterally, instead of upright like the common Portulacaria Afra.

Portulacaria Afra Features: An Overview

A basic overview of the Elephant Bush is as follows:

  • It is a popular semi-perennial succulent shrub native to South Africa.
  • It thrives in warm environments, on rocky slopes, dry river valleys, but will grow in well-watered flowerbeds and won’t mind semi-shade.
  • The Portulacaria Afra doesn’t like cold weather, but mature plants can tolerate a moderate amount of frost.
  • It can reach 8-15 feet (2.5-4.5 meters), but in a garden, the Elephant Bush will generally stop growing once it reaches 4.5-6.5 feet (1.5-2 meters).
  • Bonsai masters use the Elephant Plant to create spectacular bonsai.
  • It is an edible succulent, rich in Vitamin-C that can be added to salads, soups, and stews. It is a favorite snack for elephants, rhinos, tortoises, and goats.
  • It can absorb a lot of atmospheric carbon and in recent years, people have started using it to prevent climate change.
  • Elephant Bush is generally propagated from cuttings that strike root easily.

Mini Jade Plant Plant – Portulacaria afra, From Amazon

Planting Portulacaria Afra Succulents

Portulacaria Afra is a versatile succulent that can be grown as a bonsai specimen, as part of an indoor or outdoor succulent garden, or in a hanging basket. Its roots are very adaptable and thrive in shallow bonsai containers. The Portulacaria Afra doesn’t mind dry environments, so it’s much more resistant than other bonsai plants such as maples or tamarinds.

Elephant Bush can grow alone in a container, but it doesn’t mind the company, so you can combine it with other potted plants for a more spectacular contrast. Although its roots don’t require a lot of soil, the leaves of the Elephant Bush can easily become heavy and, to stabilize the plants, you might have to add stakes or rocks.

Hoffman Organic Cactus and Succulent Soil Mix Is Perfect

  • To ensure that your Portulacaria Afra will thrive, make sure it gets a lot of natural light and that its soil is well-drained.
  • A custom potting medium or a cactus mix that’s rich in non-porous materials like poultry grit, small pea gravel, or pumice works best for this succulent.
  • Adding a lot of sand to your soil isn’t a good idea because its small particles will encourage water retention.
  • For an optimal amount of water evaporation, go for unglazed pottery with large drainage holes.

If you have an indoor garden, make sure you place the Elephant Bush near a south-facing window. If that isn’t possible, western and eastern exposure works as well. The leaves of Portulacaria Afra plants that are kept in direct sunlight can develop red or yellow tips.

Some growers are quite keen on achieving this type of coloration. So, if you want to keep your plants green, avoid excessive sunlight. Finding the perfect spot for the Portulacaria Afra can take some time, but it’s worth it.

Portulacaria Afra
Portulacaria Afra

If the weather is nice and the nights are warm and the temperatures do not drop below 40°F (4°C), you can move your potted Elephant Bush plants outside.

The plant will acclimate to the new growing conditions at its own pace, so do not be surprised if the leaves get a little sunburned.

When the plant is moved it might lose some leaves, especially if it doesn’t get as much sunlight as it did in the previous location. This generally happens when you move your plant indoors in late autumn.

Watering Portulacaria Afra Succulents

As mentioned above, Portulacaria Afra doesn’t mind drought. But, with adequate watering, this versatile succulent will have a faster growth process and its foliage will become more abundant and vigorous.

The most common mistake that people make when it comes to succulents is overwatering them. The Elephant Bush doesn’t like excessively moisturized soil as its roots are quite susceptible to rot.

Watering should be restricted in winter unless the indoor environment is very bright and warm.

So, to avoid drowning your Elephant Bush, halt the watering process until the base leaves start to wilt. In an indoor area with a normal temperature, it can take several weeks until the plants need to be watered again.

How to Water Succulents
How to Water Succulents: Complete Beginner’s Guide

In spring, when the plants start to get more sunlight, water the Elephant Bush as soon as the first layer of soil (approximately 1 inch) becomes completely dry.

To ensure that the plants are healthy and grow fast, fertilize them every month. It is worth mentioning that most succulents, including Portulacaria Afra, are sensitive to pesticide sprays, which should be avoided.

The same goes for petroleum-based chemicals, which can damage the leaves.

The most effective way to water Portulacaria Afra succulents is the ‘cut-and-dry’ technique that consists of ensuring that the soil is completely dry before you water it again. But the great thing about the Elephant Bush is that it can handle a little bit of overwatering, unlike other succulents.

Propagating Portulacaria Afra Succulents

The Elephant Bush is rarely grown from seeds. Most gardeners will propagate this succulent from cuttings. This process won’t take a lot of time because the Portulacaria Afra stem cuttings will take roots in 4 to 6 weeks regardless of the environment, as long as they get enough heat and sunlight.

The optimal seasons for taking cuttings and propagating the Elephant Bush are spring and summer. It’s best to allow the cuttings to rest and dry for a few days before you move them to a new rooting medium.

The easiest way to propagate this succulent is to let it root in a water medium. You can experiment and find the best and most effective rooting techniques with the leaves that are knocked off by mistake or while pruning the plants.

Propagate Using leaves from the plant
Propagate Using leaves from the plant

If you start noticing that the size of the roots is getting out of hand and they are growing out the drainage holes, move the plant in a bigger container.

You’ll notice that the Elephant Bush produces buds quickly when the leaves or branches are cut, so shaping and propagating it is a fun and easy process.

In summary

Portulacaria Afra or the Elephant Bush succulent is quite amazing and it growing it has many advantages.  If you find the optimal place for it in your indoor or outdoor garden, this versatile succulent will have a quick growth process with minimal efforts on your part.

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Miruna Secuianu

Miruna is an experienced content writer with a passion for gardening. She is the proud owner of an outdoor rose garden and an indoor collection of tiny succulents. She bought her first succulent 10 years ago - an adorable Echeveria Setosa. Now she owns more than 100 succulents and cacti of different colors, shapes, and sizes. Miruna is a versatile writer and, as you might have guessed, her favorite topic is gardening. Contact miruna@gardenbeast.com

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