The Marvelous Elephant Food Plant

Are you looking for an easy-to-care-for houseplant that is both beautiful and safe for children and pets? Look no further than the Elephant Food Plant, also known as “spekboom” or “dwarf jade.” This succulent is not only supremely easy to care for but also fun to propagate. With its various growth habits and versatility, it’s no wonder that it has gained popularity among plant enthusiasts.

What Makes the Elephant Food Plant Unique?

The Elephant Food Plant, also known as Portulacaria afra, is an evergreen succulent with small, round to oval-shaped leaves. Its reddish stems develop grayish bark as they mature. The thick, fleshy leaves are a vibrant emerald-green color, sometimes with pinkish-purple margins. Though it rarely flowers indoors, its star-shaped, lavender-colored blooms add to its charm when it does.

Contrary to its name, the Elephant Food Plant is not related to the jade plant (Crassula ovata). In the wild, this species can grow into a large shrub or small tree, reaching heights of up to 15 feet. However, as a houseplant, it is easily kept at a smaller, more manageable size through regular pruning and can even be cultivated as a bonsai.

Origins and Cultivation

This remarkable plant is native to dry areas of eastern and southern Africa, specifically Eswatini, Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa. It can also be found on the Italian island of Sicily. In its natural habitat, the Elephant Food Plant thrives in scrubland, thickets, dry flatlands, dry river valleys, and rocky slopes. It can even grow in small crevices on cliff faces.

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But why is it called the “elephant bush”? Well, it turns out that elephants and other African wildlife, like black rhinos, are big fans of this plant. They use it as forage, which led to its distinctive name. It’s also sometimes referred to as “elephant food” or “elephant plant.”

Despite having multiple common names, the botanical classification of the Elephant Food Plant is Portulacaria afra. The genus name, Portulacaria, means “like portulaca.” The specific epithet “afra” signifies its origin from Africa. Interestingly, it was previously classified as part of the Portulacaceae family but has since been reclassified to the Didiereaceae family, which is closely related to the cactus family.

A Plant with Many Names and Uses

Apart from its common names, the Elephant Food Plant has had numerous synonyms and alternative names assigned to it. Some of these include P. portulacaria, Haenkea crassifolia, and Crassula arborea. It is also commonly known as “porkbush,” and the Afrikaans name for it, “spekboom,” translates to “bacon tree.”

Interestingly, though technically edible, the leaves of the Elephant Food Plant taste more like Granny Smith apples than bacon. While this species is not toxic, it’s important to note that houseplants may have been treated with various pesticides or fungicides. Therefore, it’s best to refrain from sampling this delicacy unless you are certain about the plant’s treatment.

How to Grow the Elephant Food Plant

The Elephant Food Plant is an easy-care succulent, but it does have specific preferences when it comes to its growing conditions. Here are some tips to help you keep your plant healthy and thriving:

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Sunlight Requirements

The Elephant Food Plant thrives in full sun to part shade when grown outdoors. Indoors, it requires direct sunlight or bright, indirect light. Ideally, place it close to a south- or west-facing window, or several feet away from such windows. However, make sure to gradually increase its exposure to direct sunlight to avoid shocking the plant.

Watering Needs

Hailing from arid regions, the Elephant Food Plant is drought-tolerant. While it can withstand some neglect, regular waterings will promote a lusher appearance. Allow the plant’s potting medium to dry out completely between waterings, then water deeply. It’s best to use a specialized watering can for houseplants to ensure proper irrigation.

During cooler weather or winter months, this succulent can tolerate reduced watering. However, if your plant is indoors in a warm, bright location, you may need to adjust the frequency of watering to account for shorter day lengths. For plants exposed to colder winter conditions, it’s best to withhold water until springtime.

Growth and Maintenance

The Elephant Food Plant is a low-maintenance houseplant. Pruning is only necessary if you want to alter its shape or maintain a more compact size. Sterilized scissors or garden pruners should be used for pruning to prevent the spread of disease. Additionally, any trimmings taken during pruning can be easily propagated to grow more plants.

Repotting should be done every two years or when the plant becomes rootbound. When repotting, choose a pot that is one size larger than the current container. Ensure that the pot has proper drainage holes to prevent waterlogged soil. Repotting should be done in the spring when the plant is actively growing.

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Where to Buy the Elephant Food Plant

If you’re eager to add this marvelous succulent to your collection, you can easily find the Elephant Food Plant at various plant nurseries and online stores. With its emerald-green leaves and unique growth habits, it will make a stunning addition to your indoor garden.

Conclusion

The Elephant Food Plant, with its vibrant emerald-green leaves and easy-care nature, is truly a remarkable houseplant. It offers a safe alternative to jade plants for households with children or pets. Whether you choose to cultivate it as a hanging basket, a ground cover, or a bonsai, this versatile succulent is sure to captivate and delight. Explore the wonders of the Elephant Food Plant and experience the joy of growing this unique botanical treasure.

Ames Farm Center

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