The Marvelous Elephant Bush: A Low-Maintenance Houseplant

Are you in search of a unique and easy-to-care-for houseplant? Look no further than the fascinating Elephant Bush plant! Also known as “spekboom” or “dwarf jade,” this succulent is not only a delightful addition to your indoor garden but also a fun plant to propagate. With its attractive appearance and various growth habits, the Elephant Bush plant is a great alternative to traditional jade plants.

What Makes the Elephant Bush Special

The Elephant Bush plant, scientifically known as Portulacaria afra, is an evergreen succulent with small, round to oval leaves that grow on reddish stems. As the stems mature, they develop a grayish bark that adds to the plant’s character. The lush emerald-green leaves are held opposite on the stems and may even feature pinkish-purple margins. Although this species is sometimes called “dwarf jade,” it is actually unrelated to the jade plant, Crassula ovata.

In the wild, the Elephant Bush plant can grow into a large shrub or small tree, reaching heights of 15 feet or more. However, as a houseplant, it can easily be pruned to a smaller size and can even be cultivated as a bonsai.

The History and Cultivation of the Elephant Bush

Native to dry regions in eastern and southern Africa, including Eswatini, Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa, the Elephant Bush plant thrives in scrublands, thickets, and various other habitats. Interestingly, its name comes from its enthusiastic consumers – elephants and other African wildlife, including black rhinos, use it as a source of forage. Little wonder it is also known as “elephant food” or “elephant plant.”

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The Elephant Bush plant belongs to the Portulacaria genus, which means “like portulaca” in Latin. This genus was previously included in the Portulacaceae family but was later reclassified to the Didiereaceae family, which is closely related to the cactus family, Cactaceae. With multiple common names and varying botanical classifications, the Elephant Bush plant is truly a fascinating species.

Edible and Medicinal Uses

Did you know that the Elephant Bush plant is not only nontoxic but also edible? Although the leaves of this succulent are technically edible and reportedly taste more like Granny Smith apples than bacon, it’s important to exercise caution when consuming any new food. Houseplants may be treated with pesticides or fungicides not intended for consumption, making them potentially toxic. Therefore, unless you know precisely what has been applied to your Elephant Bush plant, it is safer to avoid sampling it.

Apart from being edible, the Elephant Bush plant has had various medicinal uses. It has been used to treat skin issues, colds, inflammation, high blood pressure, and heat stroke, among other ailments. Additionally, it excels at sequestering carbon, making it an important species for landscape restoration and combating climate change.

Propagating the Elephant Bush

Propagation is a breeze with the Elephant Bush plant. While it can be grown from seeds, they are hard to find due to the plant’s infrequent flowering. However, propagating from cuttings is highly effective. To propagate your Elephant Bush plant:

  1. Take stem cuttings that are three to five inches long, ensuring you cut just below a leaf node.
  2. Allow the cuttings to callus over in a cool, dry location for two days.
  3. Fill nursery pots with well-draining potting medium, leaving an inch of room between the top of the soil and the rim of the pot.
  4. Remove the leaves from the bottom inch of each cutting and insert them into the prepared nursery pots.
  5. Water the newly potted cuttings and place them in bright, indirect light.
  6. Wait for four to six weeks for the cuttings to root, watering them only when the potting medium has thoroughly dried out.
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How to Care for the Elephant Bush

The Elephant Bush plant is incredibly low maintenance, making it an ideal houseplant. Here are some essential care tips:

Light Requirements

The Elephant Bush plant thrives in full sun to part shade when grown outdoors. As a houseplant, it requires direct sunlight or bright, indirect light. You can place it close to a south- or west-facing window or use an electric grow light for supplemental lighting.


Originating from arid regions, the Elephant Bush plant is drought-tolerant. It is essential to avoid overwatering, as this can harm the plant. Allow the potting medium to thoroughly dry out between waterings and water deeply when necessary. During the winter, you may reduce the frequency of watering based on the plant’s exposure to light and temperature.

Maintenance and Pruning

The Elephant Bush plant requires minimal maintenance. Pruning is only necessary if you want to alter its shape or keep it compact. Use sterilized scissors or gardening pruners to avoid spreading disease pathogens. The trimmings can be easily propagated, providing you with more plants for your collection or to share with others.


Repot your Elephant Bush plant every two years or when it becomes rootbound. Choose a pot that is just one size larger than the current container, ensuring it has drainage holes. Repotting is best done in the spring, allowing the plant to adjust to new growth.

Where to Find the Elephant Bush Plant

The Elephant Bush plant, with its upright and sprawling growth habit, can be purchased from various nurseries and garden centers. Look for the species plant, Portulacaria afra, with its emerald-green leaves. You can also find trailing varieties that are perfect for hanging baskets or as ground covers in succulent gardens.

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Dealing with Pests and Diseases

The Elephant Bush plant is generally resistant to pests and diseases. However, weak specimens are more susceptible to illness or infestation. Regularly inspect the foliage for signs of pests like mealybugs, spider mites, or scale insects. These can be controlled using nontoxic neem oil. Proper watering, drainage, and sunlight can help prevent root rot, the most common disease affecting this plant.

The Versatility of the Elephant Bush

The Elephant Bush plant offers a multitude of uses. It is an excellent choice for households with children or pets due to its nontoxic nature. Hanging varieties can be used to create beautiful hanging baskets or as ground covers in succulent gardens. With proper pruning, the plant can be shaped into various forms and even trained as a bonsai tree. In suitable growing zones, the Elephant Bush plant can be used in landscapes as screens, hedges, or evergreen firebreaks. Its remarkable ability to sequester carbon makes it a valuable asset in landscape restoration programs.

So, if you’re looking for a captivating and low-maintenance houseplant, the Elephant Bush plant is an excellent choice. Its distinctive appearance, ease of care, and multiple uses make it a delightful addition to any indoor garden. Visit Ames Farm Center to explore a wide range of Elephant Bush plants and start enjoying the wonders of this extraordinary species today!

Elephant Bush Plant

Ames Farm Center