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.

Elephant Bush Quick Care Tips

  • Botanical Name: Portulacaria Afra
  • Common Name(s): Elephant Bush, Dwarf Jade Plant, Porkbush
  • Synonyms: Spekboom, Elephant Food
  • Family & Origin: Didiereaceae family, native to South Africa
  • Growability: Easy to grow
  • Grow Zone: USDA zones 9-11
  • Size: Grows up to 6′ feet tall, but usually kept as a small houseplant
  • Flowering: Small pink flowers in the summer
  • Light: Bright, indirect light
  • Humidity: Tolerates low humidity
  • Temperature: Prefers warm temperatures, between 65-80°F
  • Soil: Well-draining soil, such as cactus mix
  • Water: Allow soil to dry out between waterings, water sparingly in the winter
  • Fertilizer: Fertilize once a month during the growing season with a balanced fertilizer
  • Pests & Diseases: Mealybugs, spider mites, and root rot can be a problem
  • Propagation: Stem cuttings or leaf cuttings
  • Plant Uses: Popular houseplant, can be used in bonsai, and is also used for erosion control in its native South Africa.

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

Elephant bush mammoth prefers growing on dry, rocky slopes and outcrops.

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

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

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

Subtle Beauty of lilliput plant 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.

Close-up of vibrant green succulent plant.Pin
Photo Credit: Instagram @pan.yin.growdaily

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.

Lush green succulent with water droplets.Pin
Photo Credit: Instagram @dwarfjadebonsai

Watering and Feeding

As a drought-tolerant plant, the Elephant ear 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 Lilliput succulent 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.

Succulent plant close-up with green leaves.Pin
Photo Credit: Instagram @monstera_sarah_

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

Trailing Lilliput succulent 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.

Elephant tears plant 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 Ear Succulent 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.

Hand holding a lush, variegated trailing plant.Pin
Photo Credit: Instagram @theplantroomdenver

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

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

Elephant Bush Mammoth Pest or Diseases

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 ear succulent 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 Plant 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 ear succulent plant is often used for interior home decoration
  • Looks great as a ground cover
Lush green potted plant on wooden surface.Pin
Photo Credit: Instagram @vagos_bonsai

In addition to being a pleasing ornamental plant, Elephants 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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