Great Plant Pick: Portulacaria afra
Elephant Bush or Elephant Food?
Yes, it sure is. Portulacaria afra is a perennial succulent native to South Africa but it is a great plant for outdoors and indoors over winter here in Ohio.
The common name comes from the succulent nature of the plant’s leaves and stout trunk, and also from the fact that elephants eat the plant, tearing it apart and then all the pieces root themselves and regrow.
Portulacaria afra looks like a miniature version of the Crassula argentea or Jade Plant, so that is where another common name comes about.
This plant is also known as Mini Jade Plant or Dwarf Jade. It is a fast growing succulent plant that is used a lot in a bonsai display.
As you see from the photos, the young branches and trunk of this plants are a reddish brown color which fades to a lighter grayish shade as the plant ages. The leaves are close together and are opposite each other and grow well in sun.
But you can grow this plant in light shade such as under a patio or deck roof. The tiny leaves can sunburn, so be careful when first putting it outside in sun. Give it a testing period for a week or so in bright light.
You can pinch and prune the plant to keep it in a shape you like. In fact, during the summer when the plant is growing quickly, you can pinch it weekly without any problems.
Remember to save your little pinched-off pieces so that you can make more plants for yourself or as gifts. Just set the cuttings aside on a saucer and let them callous over as you would any succulent or sedum.
In a week or so, just place the cutting into some well-drained soil mix and press it down gently. Or just lay it on the surface. In a short time, roots will form and off you go with a new plant!
Try Portulacaria afra as a Bonsai
I really love mine as a cascading plant, but you can try this plant as a bonsai. It can be hard for a beginner to wire the branches since they are brittle and break easily.
But you can pinch and guide the plant as you would like it to grow, so if you are a beginner, it may be an option for you.
And for bonsai, I remain always a beginner. So this is why I “cascade” mine. In this photo below, that middle piece which looks like a trunk is NOT the trunk on this plant. It is a piece of driftwood I have stuck in the hypertufa trough. This planter is one of my “Almost Hypertufa” which I have written about on this blog.
Portulacaria afra is a really cute plant to have. You will enjoy how easy it is to grow. The only problem I see with this plant is the danger of over-watering.
Be sure it is in well-drained soil which is very gritty and let it dry out completely before you water it.
These plants grow into small bushes or even trees in their natural habitat of South Africa, and in the warmer zones where it can live outside all year, you can get some really large specimens. But I will be content here in Ohio to enjoy mine in the small hypertufa planters I use.
Remember, I have to carry it inside in winter. Yes, I will carry it inside. It is too cute to leave outside and freeze. Right?