Elephant Bush 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 in dry, rocky slopes.
At first sight, many often think ‘afra’ is a mini Crassula ovata (dwarf jade plant) because of their similar appearance.
This plant is commonly known as:
- Elephant Bush
- Dwarf Jade Plant
- Elephant food
… and comes in miniature and variegated variety as well.
The variegated Portulacaria afra ‘variegata’ is called the – Rainbow bush.
Elephant Bush Care
Size and Growth
Elephant Bush prefers growing in dry, rocky slopes and outcrops.
The reddish-brown stems grow upward reaching up to be 8’ to 15’ feet tall.
However, it is most likely to remain a smaller plant growing only a few feet tall.
This plant is hardy to grow in USDA zones 9-11.
Flowering and Fragrance
The elephant bush plant is characterized by a brownish-red stem sprouting with small, glossy green leaves.
It is rare for Elephant Portulacaria to bloom in cultivation.
However, when they get the proper growing conditions, they will produce flowers in clusters and in shades of white, pink or purple.
Light and Temperature
This plant requires plenty of bright light and a warm environment to grow and thrive.
Plant in full sun or partial shade. However, if plants are moved from indoors to direct sunlight the leaves will burn and shed.
This is why filtered or partially shaded bright light is ideal.
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 the plant can move indoors during the colder months.
Watering and Feeding
As a drought tolerant plant, Elephant Bush doesn’t need lots of water to survive. It adapts to dry and hot conditions.
They generally thrive when given regular waterings.
As a rule of thumb, they need 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 the plant.
Feed plants in the early spring or late winter with a diluted indoor plant fertilizer at 50% strength.
Potting Soil and Transplanting
Elephant bushes 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.
This plant needs well-draining potting soil such as a cactus mix or sandy soil.
Adding additional perlite for extra drainage also helps and pots need drainage holes.
Do not allow the soil to get waterlogged as overwatering easily can damage the plant.
Repot 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.
How to Propagate Elephant Bush
Propagate Elephant Bush easily using stem cuttings.
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 fully take root and start developing new growth.
Elephant Bush Pest or Disease Problems
This plant is susceptible to mealy bugs that appear as small, cottony spots on the leaves.
Get rid of these by wiping it 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 under watering.
Keep an eye on the soil to ensure that you are not letting your plant stand in water.
Also, make sure that you don’t completely dry out the soil so that the plant is left starving for moisture.
Uses For The Elephant Food Succulent Plant
The elephant’s food plant has several ways to show off its interesting features.
- Growing as a succulent hanging basket on a patio
- Potted as a miniature jade or small tree in a bonsai pot
- Planted with others in a succulent garden
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.
Because of the plant’s sour taste when consumed, in some parts of South Africa, it is used as an ingredient in salads and stew.