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A Guide to Portulacaria Afra: The Elephant Bush

Jennifer is an environmentalist from Ohio. She is passionate about advocating for the planet and wildlife through gardening and education.

A Guide to Portulacaria Afra: The Elephant Bush

A Guide to Portulacaria Afra: The Elephant Bush

What Is an Elephant Bush?

Elephant bush (Portulacaria afra) is a slow-growing, shrubby succulent plant native to South Africa. As a succulent, elephant bush is drought-tolerant and loves dry, sunny areas. It grows best in arid, desert-like environments.

Elephant bush gets its name from the fact that it is a favorite food of elephants. Other common nicknames for this plant include porkbush, spekboom, elephant food, and dwarf jade (though it is not closely related to the jade plant).

Elephant bush is a versatile succulent and can be grown to meet a number of different aesthetics. It’s trailing, leafy stems make it a good choice for hanging baskets. Because of its tree-like growth habit, it also makes for a relatively easy bonsai. Though it is rare for this plant to bloom when grown indoors as a houseplant, it is possible for it to produce clusters of pink or white star-shaped flowers in ideal growing conditions.

A Portulacaria afra in an elephant planter next to a succulent watering bottle. Use this type of bottle when watering succulents to protect their leaves.

A Portulacaria afra in an elephant planter next to a succulent watering bottle. Use this type of bottle when watering succulents to protect their leaves.

Elephant Bush Care

As a succulent, the elephant bush is a relatively easy houseplant to care for. It thrives on a bit of neglect when compared to other houseplants. As with most plants, the key in caring for elephant bush plants is in making sure you know it’s water, soil, light, and temperature requirements.

Water

Like most succulents, you don’t need to water your elephant bush often, though this plant does like a little bit more water than many other succulents. Only water your elephant bush when the soil is completely dry. If you play attention, your plant will tell you when it’s thirsty: look for wrinkly leaves.

When the soil is dry, drench the soil completely with room-temperature water. Either bottom water or use a succulent squeeze-bottle with a long spout to avoid getting water on the leaves.

Also remember, as with all succulents, it is always better to underwater than to over water. It is easier to bring back a plant that has been under watered than one that has been overwatered. Succulents naturally store water in their leaves or stems to allow them to survive conditions where water is scarce, so they can tolerate being thirsty. Overwatering can cause root rot or cause their water storage cells to become damaged. Both of these can kill the plant.

Soil

As with other succulents, elephant bush requires very well-draining soil. If you use regular potting mix, be sure to add something to give the soil a lot of extra drainage, such as perlite, pea gravel, pumice, or chicken grit. Mix the drainage media with the potting soil at a ratio of 1:1.

If you use a commercial succulent or cactus soil, such as the popular Miracle-Gro Cactus Mix, you should still add extra perlite or another grit for drainage, as these commercial succulent mixes tend to still hold too much water for succulents.

Using a soil that holds onto too much moisture is a sure way to give your succulents too much water, even if you are careful not to water too often.

Light

Elephant bush plants need lots of bright light to thrive. They require at least six hours of bright, but indirect, light per day. If they get too much direct full sun, the tips of their leaves can burn or turn yellow. On the other hand, if they get too much shade and not enough sunlight, they can begin to etiolate and get leggy. Place them near a south-facing window for best results.

Variegated varieties of elephant bush may require more sun than their completely green counterparts to preserve their unique coloring. Variegated specimens can sometimes revert to full green coloring if they don’t receive enough light.

Temperature

Normal room temperatures are ideal for elephant bushes. They thrive in daytime temperatures between 65–80°F (18–27°C). They can handle nighttime temperatures of 50–55°F (10–13°C). This plant can be sensitive to extreme temperature fluctuations, so it is best to keep it away from drafty areas and heat vents.

In most areas, elephant bushes can only be kept indoors as houseplants, but they can be grown in USDA zones 10 and 11 (or equivalent for those living in countries other than the US).

This elephant bush is thirsty and asking for water.

This elephant bush is thirsty and asking for water.

Propagating Elephant Bush

As with many other succulents, elephant bushes are easy to propagate to expand your plant collection. Elephant bush is an easy succulent to propagate via stem cuttings.

To propagate from stem cuttings, simply cut a healthy stem off of your elephant bush using clean, sterilized shears. Allow the stem to dry for a few days to callus.

Once the stem has been allowed to callus, simply stick it into a small pot of soil to allow it to root. Optionally, you can use rooting hormone on the end of the stem before placing it in the soil to make it root more quickly.

You may also be able to propagate a new elephant bush from fallen leaves, though I haven’t had luck with this method. If a couple leaves fall off your existing plant on their own, it may be worth trying to propagate new plants, but I wouldn’t pull off leaves on purpose to propagate when stem cuttings have a much high success rate.

A recently propagated Portulacaria afra cutting. This baby elephant bush is chilling under a grow light with some of my other houseplants.

A recently propagated Portulacaria afra cutting. This baby elephant bush is chilling under a grow light with some of my other houseplants.

Variegated Elephant Bush Varieties

The standard elephant bush, Portulacaria afra has solid green leaves. This is the most common variant of this plant you will encounter. There are also two different variegated varieties that, while easy to find if you look, are a bit more uncommon. These variegated varieties feature interestingly patterned leaves and may be smaller and less robust than the standard green variety.

Rainbow Elephant Bush

The more common variegated variety is called Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’ or more commonly “rainbow elephant bush” or simply “rainbow bush.” This variety has lighter colored creamy white and green leaves. They have a light green vertical stripe running up and down the center of each leaf, with a creamy white color at the edges. They can also have a bit of a pinkish color bordering the edges of their leaves and pinkish stems. It may grow more slowly than the regular darker green variety due to its leaves containing less chlorophyll.

Mid-stripe Rainbow Elephant Bush

The other variegated variety of elephant bush is the mid-stripe rainbow elephant bush, Portulacaria afra 'Medio-picta' (or “mid-stripe elephant bush,” or “reverse variegated elephant bush.”) This variety of variegated elephant bush is very similar to the rainbow elephant bush, but the colors on its leaves are reversed. For the mid-stripe variant, the center part of the leaf is a creamy whitish color, while the outer edges are green. This variety tends to have particularly bright pinkish or reddish stems.

A small Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’, rainbow elephant bush, showing some pinkish new growth.

A small Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’, rainbow elephant bush, showing some pinkish new growth.

Fun Facts About Elephant Bushes

Let's take a look at some fun facts about this wonderful plant.

Elephant Bush vs Jade

Due to its similarity in appearance to the jade plant (Crassula ovata), another type of succulent, elephant bush is often called “dwarf jade.” Despite their similar appearances, these two succulents are not related and are very different plants.

Pet and Animal Friendly

Unlike jade plants (Crassula ovata), elephant bushes are completely non-toxic and safe to have around pets, including cats and dogs, and other animals. In fact, they are a favorite food source of African elephants and tortoises!

A Culinary Delight

It’s not just elephant who enjoy snacking on this succulent plant. In some countries in southern Africa, elephant bush leaves are used in salads and soups to add a sour flavor and juicy crunch. It is even sometimes used medicinally for a variety of minor ailments.

Bonsai Bonanza

Though it isn’t technically a tree, elephant bushes can be used to make bonsais due to their woody trunks and tree-like growth habit.

Carbon Sponge

Elephant bush is an excellent “carbon sponge,” as it can remove a significant amount of carbon from the air. It is so efficient at absorbing carbon that in can remove more carbon than an equal amount of deciduous forest.

Mid-stripe rainbow elephant bush, Portulacaria afra 'Medio-picta' in an elephant-shaped planter on my kitchen counter. This is probably my favorite of the three varieties.

Mid-stripe rainbow elephant bush, Portulacaria afra 'Medio-picta' in an elephant-shaped planter on my kitchen counter. This is probably my favorite of the three varieties.

Resources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Jennifer Wilber

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