Portulacaria afra (Elephant Bush) Propagation and Care

In this post we review care and propagation for Portulacaria afra or Elephant Bush.  I share some of my favorite tips.

The Portulacaria afra (pronounced por-tew-luh-KAR-ee-uh AF-ruh), is commonly called Elephant Bush. Indeed easy to propagate and care for. This bushy succulent shrub belongs to the Didiereaceae family.

It is also known as Elephant Bush, Dwarf Jade, Mini Jade, Elephant food, Chinese Jade Plant, Pork Bush, Rainbow Bush, Rainbow Elephant Bush, Spekboom (Afrikaans for bacon tree), miniature jade or small leaf jade (but not related to Crassula ovata or Jade Plant).

The Portulacaria afra Variegata is the variegated version. Also, commonly called Rainbow Bush or Variegated Elephant Bush. This succulent shrub that has creamy pale yellow leaves with a light green center stripe.

Additionally, it has a tinge of magenta on the edges of the leaves. Thankfully, this can appear all year round.

Portulacaria Afra
Elephant bush - Portulacaria Afra Variegated

Portulacaria afra Variegata is a slow growing, low sprawling evergreen succulent. Leaf color varies with new growth and color shades are determined by the time of the year, water and fertilizer. 

Portulacaria afra Elephant Food

Native to South Africa and used to feed elephants in their natural habitat, hence the name Elephant Bush. It forms up to 80% of elephant’s diet. In fact, they can eat up to 400 pounds of leaves per day. 

Elephant Bush can grow up to 20 feet (6 meters) tall in the wild. 

Portulacaria afra AKA Elephant Bush Propagation & Care
Portulacaria Afra

In addition to feeding elephants the Portulacaria afra is also widely browsed by wild and domestic animals. Actually, it is a favorite food of tortoises. Goats and other animals, eat the plant from the ground up causing overgrazing. Unfortunately, this has led to a decline in Portulacaria afra’s population.

Leaves of Portulacaria afra are used as food in some native cultures. Specifically, they are used in salads or soups to add a sour flavor in some cultures. 

Portulacaria afra Medicinal Uses

Leaves were traditionally used medicinally for a variety of minor ailments. Specifically for sore throat and mouth infections. It has also been known to increase the breast milk of lactating mothers.

Also, the astringent juice can be used for soothing skin ailments such as pimples, rashes and insect bites. Additionally, they can be used quench thirst by sucking on a leaf, treat exhaustion, dehydration, and heatstroke.

The Portulacaria Afra plant is known to absorb carbon in the air. Indeed why it has a reputation for being a carbon-sponge plant. In fact, it removes more carbon dioxide from the air during photosynthesis than most other plants. 

Specifically, it is one of the most successful carbon sinks in the world. The amazing Elephant Bush can remove up to one hundred times more carbon from our atmosphere than a single pine tree of similar size.

This succulent is a popular houseplant due to its sparse requirements for care, the ability to persist in harsh conditions. As well as its simple but beautiful colors.

This decorative and structural succulent has reddish brown stems with glossy  green leaves and the stem gets thicker over time as the plant matures. 

Portulacaria
Portulacaria Afra succulent arrangement

These plants are very easy to grow and are super easy to propagate. Elephant Bush starts out as a small bush and eventually grow tall and tree-like. In fact, they grow upright horizontally, but can also spread out laterally and sprawl or hang. 

Definitely a great choice for hanging baskets, as a groundcover or in succulent arrangements. Portulacaria afra are also grown as a bonsai or a hedge and can be controlled with proper trimming and shaping.

Portulacaria afra Temperature

Elephant Bush do best in USDA zones 9-11. They can handle mild frost and cold temperatures to 25°F (-3.9°C). However, only for a short period of time.

Be sure to protect from freezing the first two or three years. Ideal temperatures are between 70°F-85°F (21°C-29°C).

Portulacaria afra
Portulacaria afra 'Aurea'

If you live in a climate with freezing winter temperatures, it is best to grow Portulacaria Afra in a container. Therefore, you can easily move them indoors during the cooler months. Elephant Bush can withstand long droughts and heat waves. 

Elephant Bush needs plenty of bright sunlight and can tolerate full sun with acclimation. Intense sunlight for a long periods of time should be avoided. Specifically to avoid sunburned leaves. In fact, filtered or partially shaded bright light is ideal.

Additionally, exposure to the sun reduces the risk of over-watering. In fact, it also maintains the colorful variegation of their leaves.

 

Water the Elephant Bush weekly in the hottest months of the year. However in winter, only water monthly at most. Soak the soil, then allow it to dry completely before watering again. 

Also, do not water before or during the weeks it is scheduled to bloom. Otherwise, it will fail to flower. 

Like most succulents, the Portulacaria afra prefers a well-draining soil. You can use a Cactus and Succulent Soil. In fact, you can also make your own potting mix. 

My favorite Portulacaria afra soil recipe:

  • Two parts potting soil
  • One part coarse sand
  • One part perlite or pumice 

Plants produce tiny, pink or white flowers in late spring/early summer in their native habitat. It can also flower in places like Southern California where they can grow year round in the ground and after a dry winter where plants are not irrigated. Although, keep in mind flowers are quite rare in cultivation.

Star-shaped flowers are produced in clusters at the ends of branches. They have five pointed petals and prominent stamens. Pollinated flowers are followed by tiny light pink, berry-like dry fruits, each with only a single seed.

Portulacaria afra
Flowers of Portulacaria afra 'Elephant Bush'

The Elephant Bush propagates easily from stem cuttings. It can be grown from seed, but it is best grown from cuttings. In fact, cuttings can be dipped in rooting hormone for faster roots. Additionally, Portulacaria afra can also be propagated in water or in soil. 

Elephant Bush stem cuttings will can root in about 4 to 6 weeks in soil in warm temperatures. 

It is best to take cuttings in spring or summer. Take a cutting with at least a few leaves. Allow the ends to callous over for 3-5 days before putting them in soil or water. 

Keep new Elephant Bush cuttings out of direct sunlight, but allow them to receive adequate indirect sunlight. 

Succulent Water Propagation
Elephant Bush propagating in water

If propagating in water, transfer to well-draining soil as soon as there are sufficient roots. Propagating your succulents is an easy way to grow your collection. However, be warned….succulent propagation is completely addicting!

How to Prune Elephant bush?

Watch our Elephant Bush Pruning and Propagation video below or keep reading.

The Elephant Bush is susceptible to disgusting mealy bugs that appear as small, cottony spots on the leaves. You can get rid of these pests by wiping the leaves and stem down with a Q-tip dipped in alcohol or spray them with an organic insect killing soap. You can read my complete post on mealybug and pest erradication here.

Elephant Bush Leaves Falling off

Watering issues are the most common reason for Elephant Bush leaves falling off. In fact, underwatering and overwatering can both cause leaves to drop. 

As a survival mechanism during times of drought or underwatering, the plant drops leaves to conserve its water storage. Additionally, leaves will also appear shriveled and flat. Also, leaves will feel flat and deflated to the touch as the plant continues to lose its water supply.

Giving you Portulacaria afra a good drink of water should allow the plant to perk back up in a day or two. Water again only when the soil is completely dry. This can be anywhere between 1-2 weeks depending on your climate and sunlight. I typically water once every two weeks as I am in sunny Southern California. 

Alternatively, your Elephant Bush dropping leaves could be from an overwatered plant. However, instead of flat, shriveled leaves, they will be soft and mushy. Additionally, leaves may also take on a lighter, more translucent color.

If you are overwatering, immediately stop and give your Portulacaria plenty of indirect light so it can dry out faster. Again, only water when the soil is completely dry.

Why is my Elephant Bush turning yellow?

Most leaf yellowing issues are typically caused by either over or under watering. Follow the steps above to correct these issues.

Additionally, too much direct sun can cause Portulacaria afra leaves to turn yellow or red at the tips. However, some may prefer this. If you do not want the leaves getting lighter from sun, reduce direct sunlight.

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