If you’re looking for a captivating houseplant that is easy to care for and fun to propagate, then look no further than the Elephant Bush. Also known as “spekboom” or “dwarf jade,” this succulent offers a unique alternative to traditional jade plants that is not only nontoxic but also comes in various varieties with different growth habits. In this article, we’ll explore every aspect of growing and caring for this remarkable plant as a houseplant.
Unveiling the Elephant Bush
Imagine a succulent with small, emerald-green leaves held on reddish stems that develop grayish bark as they mature. Meet the Elephant Bush, an evergreen succulent that also showcases pinkish-purple margins on its leaves. While it rarely flowers indoors, its tiny star-shaped, lavender-colored blooms create a delightful sight when grown outdoors year-round. Don’t be fooled by its name though; this species, Portulacaria afra, is unrelated to the jade plant, Crassula ovata.
In its natural habitat, the Elephant Bush thrives as a large shrub or small tree, reaching heights of 15 feet or more. However, as a houseplant, it can easily be pruned and cultivated as a smaller, more manageable size, making it an excellent choice for bonsai enthusiasts. This succulent is native to dry areas of eastern and southern Africa, specifically Eswatini, Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa, and has even naturalized on the Italian island of Sicily.
The Journey of Spekboom
Have you ever wondered why this plant is called “elephant bush”? Well, it’s named after one of its biggest fans – elephants. These majestic creatures, along with other African wildlife like black rhinos, use the plant as a source of forage. It’s also commonly referred to as “elephant food” or “elephant plant.” With its lush foliage, the Elephant Bush is a delightful addition to any household with small children or mischievous pets, as it is nontoxic and provides a safe alternative to jade plants.
Botanically classified as a member of the Portulacaria genus, the Elephant Bush has had multiple names throughout its history. Its genus, “Portulacaria,” means “like portulaca,” while the specific epithet “afra” means “from Africa.” In the past, it was part of the Portulacaceae family, which includes plants like moss rose and purslane. However, botanists later reclassified it into the Didiereaceae family, which is more closely related to the cactus family.
A Succulent That Packs a Punch
Spekboom, as it is often referred to, is a plant with many common names and synonyms. It is also known as “porkbush,” a name shared by many members of the Portulacaria genus. In Afrikaans, it is called “spekboom,” which translates to “bacon tree.” While the leaves of this succulent are technically edible, they taste more like Granny Smith apples than smoked pork belly. However, it’s important to exercise caution before sampling this delicacy, as houseplants may be exposed to pesticides or fungicides not intended for consumption.
Apart from its culinary potential, spekboom has a long history of medicinal use in its native range. It has been used to treat skin issues, colds, inflammation, high blood pressure, heat stroke, and more. Additionally, this remarkable plant excels at sequestering carbon, making it an essential asset in landscape restoration efforts.
Propagating the Elephant Bush
While growing the Elephant Bush from seeds can be challenging due to infrequent flowering, propagating it from cuttings is incredibly easy. Spring or summer is the best time to embark on this project when the plant is in an active growth period. All you need to get started are a mature porkbush, scissors or gardening pruners, potting medium, and four-inch nursery pots. The cuttings root easily, so there’s no need for rooting hormone.
After sterilizing your scissors, take stem cuttings that are three to five inches long, making the cuts just below a leaf node. Depending on your desired outcome, you can take multiple cuttings for a full hanging basket or just one cutting for bonsai purposes. Let the cuttings callus over for two days in a cool, dry location. Then, fill the nursery pots with potting medium and remove the leaves from the bottom inch of each cutting. Place the cuttings in the pots and water them thoroughly, ensuring they receive indirect, bright light to promote root growth. Within four to six weeks, your cuttings will start rooting, and you’ll have more Elephant Bush plants to enjoy or share.
The Art of Growing Elephant Bush
Elephant bushes are incredibly easy to care for, but understanding their preferred conditions is essential to their success. These succulents thrive in full sun to part shade when grown outdoors, with direct sunlight or indirect bright light being ideal for indoor cultivation. For optimal growth, place your plant close to a south- or west-facing window or several feet away from such windows. Before exposing a new plant to direct sunlight, gradually increase its exposure to acclimate it to the intensity of the light. Insufficient light can cause stretched stems and sparse foliage, so consider supplementing natural light with an electric grow light if necessary.
When it comes to watering, it’s important to strike the right balance. While the Elephant Bush is drought-tolerant, regular watering will encourage lusher growth. Allow the potting medium to dry out thoroughly between waterings, and water deeply when you do water. Be cautious not to overwater, as this can lead to root rot. Use a watering can designed for houseplants to ensure an even and controlled distribution of water. Remember to avoid watering on overcast days, and reduce the frequency of watering during the winter months. However, if your plant is kept indoors in a warm, bright location, adjust the watering schedule to account for shorter day lengths.
While Elephant Bush is sensitive to cold temperatures and frost, it can survive in USDA Hardiness Zones 9 to 11. If you’re growing your plant outdoors, be mindful of sub-freezing temperatures and sudden temperature fluctuations caused by drafts or heat vents. Protect your spekboom from extreme cold to keep it looking its best.
Cultivating and Maintaining Your Elephant Bush
Elephant Bush is a low-maintenance plant that requires minimal care. Pruning is only necessary if you want to shape the plant or keep it at a compact size. Use sterilized scissors or garden pruners to avoid spreading diseases, and remember that any trimmings can be propagated to create more plants. Repotting should be done every two years when the plant becomes rootbound. Choose a pot that is just one size larger than the current container, ensuring it has drainage holes. Repot in the spring when the plant is experiencing new growth, and allow a week to pass before resuming your normal watering routine.
Exploring the Possibilities
With its emerald-green leaves and sprawling growth habit, the Elephant Bush is a versatile plant with numerous applications. It makes an excellent houseplant for households with children or pets, providing a safe and captivating alternative to jade plants. Trailing varieties are perfect for hanging baskets or ground covers in succulent gardens, while the upright growth habits can be pruned and trained into various bonsai styles. In USDA Hardiness Zones 9 to 11, the Elephant Bush can be incorporated into landscapes as screens, hedges, or evergreen firebreaks. Lastly, let’s not forget its incredible ability to sequester carbon, making it an eco-friendly choice for landscape restoration projects.
Managing Potential Pests and Diseases
Elephant Bush is generally resilient against pests and diseases, but weak specimens are more susceptible to problems. Check the plant regularly for signs of pests such as scale, spider mites, or mealybugs, and treat them with nontoxic neem oil if necessary. Root rot is a common issue that can be prevented by providing proper drainage and avoiding overwatering. If you suspect root rot, check the plant’s roots and trim away any affected parts before repotting in fresh potting medium.
Bringing the Elephant Bush Home
If you’re eager to bring the beauty of the Elephant Bush into your home, there are various places where you can purchase the species plant, Portulacaria afra. With its upright, sprawling growth habit and emerald-green leaves, it will undoubtedly add a touch of elegance to your indoor space.
The Elephant Bush, with its fascinating history, versatile uses, and captivating beauty, is a plant that truly stands out. Whether you’re a seasoned houseplant enthusiast or a beginner looking to add some greenery to your home, the Elephant Bush is a perfect choice. Its easy propagation, low-maintenance care, and numerous benefits make it a plant worth exploring. So why not embark on a journey with the Elephant Bush and witness its captivating growth firsthand?