Elephant Bush: Grow and Care for Portulacaria Afra

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Elephant Bush plant or Portulacaria afra (pronounced por-tew-luh-KAR-ee-uh AF-ruh) is a bushy succulent shrub belonging to the Didiereaceae family.

In its native habitat in the eastern part of South Africa and the Limpopo Province from the Eastern Cape northward, it’s found growing on dry, rocky slopes.

Elephant Portulacaria afraPin
Succulent leaves of the elephant bush

At first sight, many often think ‘afra’ is a mini Crassula ovata (dwarf jade plant) because of their similar appearance.

The Portulacaria afra plant goes by the common names of:

  • Elephant Bush
  • Dwarf Jade Plant
  • Porkbush
  • Spekboom
  • Elephant succulent

… and comes in miniature and variegated varieties as well.

The variegated form of the Elephant bush – Portulacaria afra ‘variegata’ is called the – Rainbow bush.

Elephant Bush Care: Growth Master Portulacaria Afra Plants

Size and Growth: Elephant Bush Potential

Portulacaria afra plant prefers growing in dry, rocky slopes and outcrops.

The woody reddish-brown stems grow upward, reaching up to 8′ to 15′ feet tall.

However, it is most likely to remain a smaller plant growing only a few feet tall.

Elephant Bush close-up, small pot, green shiny round leaves, hanging stemsPin

This plant is hardy to grow in USDA zones 9-11.

Subtle Beauty of Elephant Bush Succulent Flowers and Fragrance

The elephant bush succulent is characterized by its reddish stems sprouting with small, glossy green leaves.

It is rare for the Elephant plant succulent to bloom in cultivation.

However, under the right conditions, they will produce flowers in clusters and in shades of white, pink, or purple. 

The flowers carry a light scent and attract bees and other pollinators during the blooming season.

Light and Temperature

The Portulacaria afra plant requires plenty of bright light and a warm environment to grow and thrive.

Plant in full sun or partial shade.

However, if the dwarf jade plant is moved from indoors to direct sunlight outdoors, the oval leaves will burn and shed.

This is why filtered or partially shaded bright light is ideal.

Rainbow Elephant Bush can handle mild frost and cold temperatures to 25° degrees Fahrenheit for a short period of time.

If you live in a climate with freezing winter temperatures, it’s best to grow Afra in a container so this succulent plant can move indoors during the colder months.

Watering and Feeding

As a drought-tolerant plant, the Elephant bush succulent doesn’t need lots of water to survive. It adapts to dry and hot conditions.

They generally thrive when given regular watering.

As a rule of thumb, a growing Elephant bush plant needs more water in the summer months when it’s hotter and drier as opposed to cooler winter months.

Wait for the top layer of soil to dry out a little before watering again to ensure you’re not overwatering this succulent plant.

Feed plants in the early spring or late winter with a diluted indoor plant fertilizer at 50% strength.

Potting Soil and Transplanting

Elephant bush plants require well-drained soil to thrive. However, you may also use a cactus mix or potting medium with pumice, small pea gravel, or poultry grit.

When it’s container-grown, unglazed pottery or any container with large drainage holes is best for better evaporation of excess moisture. 

Trailing Elephant bush succulents can grow with very little soil. Their thick stems and succulent leaves make the plants top-heavy.

When planting, plants may need a rock or stake to help stabilize them until they become well-established.

Portulacaria afra needs a well-draining potting mix, such as a cactus mix or sandy succulent soil.

Adding additional perlite for extra drainage also helps, and pots need drainage holes.

Do not allow the soil to get waterlogged, as overwatering can easily damage the plant.

Repotting every two years or so to ensure the plant is getting sufficient soil nutrients.

Ensure that the potting mix in the new container is fresh so the plant’s nutrient supply is replenished accordingly.

Moreover, pruning the tips of the plant will help keep it smaller.

Elephant Bush Propagation

Propagate Elephant Bush easily using a stem cutting.

Remove a stem from the plant using a sterile razor knife or sharp pair of scissors.

Once the cut dries for several days, place it in a potting mix of well-drained cactus soil.

While the plant is taking root (4-6 weeks), take care to keep it out of direct sunlight and ensure that you are keeping the soil moist when it starts to go dry.

It should take about four to six weeks for plants to take root and start developing new growth fully.

Elephant Bush Pest or Disease Problems

This low-maintenance plant is susceptible to mealybugs that appear as small, cottony spots on the green leaves.

Get rid of these by wiping them down with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol.

Other pests to look out for are spider mites and whitefly.

Other problems with Elephant Bush include leaf dropping and leaf yellowing.

The former is caused by over or underwatering.

Keep an eye on the soil to ensure that you are not letting your plant stand in water. Overwatering can lead to root rot.

Also, make sure that you don’t completely dry out the soil so that the plant is left starving for moisture.

Elephant Bush Portulacaria Afra Uses

The Elephant jade plant has several ways to show off its interesting features.

  • Growing as a succulent hanging basket on a patio
  • Grown as potted plants as a miniature jade or a small bonsai tree
  • Grown as an upright multi-stemmed shrub or small tree
  • Planted with others in a succulent garden
  • Elephant bush houseplants are used for interior home decoration
  • Looks great as a ground cover

In addition to being a pleasing ornamental plant, Elephant Bush has a number of uses.

The plant is known to absorb carbon in the air, which is why it has gleaned a reputation for being a carbon-sponge plant.

It is also used to feed elephants. Hence the name ‘elephant food,’ but tortoises and goats also feed on it since its foliage is edible.

Because of the plant’s sour flavor when consumed, in some parts of Southern Africa, it is used as an ingredient in soups, salads, and stews.

In addition, it’s safe with pets and humans since this plant is non-toxic.

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