The Enigmatic Succulent Elephant Plant

The succulent elephant plant, also known as Portulacaria afra, is a fascinating perennial succulent native to South Africa. With its glossy, fleshy leaves and small bush-like growth, this plant is not only a favorite food for elephants but also highly regarded by the people of South Africa for its culinary and medicinal uses. In fact, the tart foliage of the elephant plant is commonly incorporated into soups, salads, and various remedies. However, due to its popularity among elephants and other animals, overgrazing has become a challenge for its native germination in South Africa.

Unveiling Quick Facts about the Elephant Bush

To better acquaint ourselves with this remarkable plant, here are some quick facts worth knowing about the elephant bush:

  • Botanical name: Portulacaria afra
  • Height: 8-20 feet (2.4-6 m)
  • Spread: 4-6 feet (1.2-1.8 m)
  • Sun exposure: Full to partial sun outside/ direct to indirect sun inside
  • Soil requirements: Well-draining
  • Hardiness zones: 10-11
  • When to plant: Spring after all danger of frost has passed

The Intriguing Portulacaria afra

Portulacaria afra, also referred to as P. afra, boasts various common names such as elephant food, dwarf jade, miniature jade, and small leaf jade, among others. Resembling jade plants with its small, rounded, and thick leaves, P. afra thrives in full sun, unlike its jade counterparts. The leaves of the elephant succulent are not only edible but also have a pleasantly crunchy texture and mildly tart flavor, thanks to a concentration of malic acid. During the spring and early summer, this succulent blooms with small, pink flowers on terminal spikes, with flowering often triggered by cultural stresses like being pot bound.

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Diverse Types of Elephant Bush Succulent

The elephant bush succulent offers a range of captivating varieties, though not all are readily available in local nurseries. Notably, variegated varieties tend to be smaller than their green counterparts. For those keen on unique varieties, Aurea is a compact specimen with striking yellow leaves, while Cork Bark is perfect for bonsai enthusiasts. Foliis variegatis, a slow-growing variegated form, is ideal for container gardening, while Limpopo showcases larger leaves compared to other cultivars. Another intriguing variety is Medio-picta, featuring green leaves accented with white and brilliant red stems. Additionally, Prostrata, also known as Low Form elephant plants, is excellently suited for ground cover. Lastly, Portulacaria variegata is a compact and upright succulent with pale green leaves edged in white or cream, delicately complemented by pink accents. This particular variety thrives in slightly less bright sun compared to other cultivars, and after a dormant period in winter, it produces small, pink flowers in clusters on the branches’ ends.

A Majestic Houseplant and Natural Air Purifier

In its natural habitat, the elephant bush can grow up to an impressive 20 feet in height and spread as wide as 6 feet or more. However, when cultivated as a houseplant, its size is more likely to remain within a few feet. The plant showcases thick, succulent brown stems adorned with small, tender green leaves that bear a resemblance to miniature jade plants. As an excellent choice for a houseplant, P. afra, like many succulents, utilizes crassulacean acid metabolism to efficiently take in carbon dioxide from the air, making it a natural air purifier for your home.

Nurturing Your Elephant Succulent

To grow a healthy and vibrant elephant succulent, you must provide it with the proper care it deserves. Here are some guidelines to help you along the way:

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Light

When growing the elephant bush indoors, it thrives in bright, indirect sunlight. Excessive direct sunlight can cause leaf burn and leaf drop. Placing the plant near a south-facing window is typically ideal, although some experimentation might be necessary to strike the right balance, as too much sunlight can result in yellow or red-tipped leaves.

Soil

Like most succulents, the elephant bush requires well-draining soil. Opt for an unglazed pot that allows excess moisture to evaporate. The ideal soil mixture for this plant consists of cactus soil or potting soil blended with vermiculite or pumice in a 1:1 ratio. Alternatively, you can use pea gravel, poultry grit, or other non-porous materials. Avoid using sand in the soil mix. If you reside in a warm region where the elephant succulent thrives outdoors, ensure the soil is well-drained by adding about 3 inches of gritty material.

Temperature

Elephant plants that are grown indoors can be moved outside when temperatures are warm enough. However, make sure to gradually acclimate the plant to the outdoor conditions before permanently relocating it. When nighttime temperatures approach 40°F (4°C), it is advisable to move the plant back indoors. Don’t be alarmed if the plant sheds a few leaves during this process; it is a natural response to the change in environment.

Water

Consistent watering is essential for succulent plants, including the elephant bush. From mid-spring to mid-autumn, ensure regular watering. However, during winter, when the plant is in a dormant state, watering is unnecessary. Overwatering can lead to root rot, so it is crucial to allow the soil to dry out completely between waterings and avoid letting the plant sit in standing water.

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Elephant Bush Propagation

The elephant bush can be propagated through both seed and asexual methods. When a branch or leaf drops from the plant, it has the potential to take root and grow into a new plant. However, the more common method of propagation is through cuttings. Take cuttings in spring or summer, and after allowing the cut ends to dry for a couple of days, plant them in soil or root them in water. Place the potted cuttings in a moderately lit area with temperatures at least 65°F (18°C). With proper care, the cuttings will develop roots within 4-6 weeks, resulting in new elephant bush succulent plants.

Nurturing your Elephant Bush

Fertilization and repotting are important considerations in caring for your elephant bush. During the growing season, it is advisable to feed the plant monthly with an indoor plant fertilizer, diluted by half, in late winter to early spring. Repot the plant when you notice roots protruding from the drainage holes of the container, indicating that it has outgrown its current home.

Pests are generally not a significant concern for elephant plants. However, mealybugs can occasionally pose a problem. It is important to avoid using pesticide sprays, as they can harm or even kill succulents. Instead, opt for a mild homemade pesticide solution. Keep an eye out for pests like whiteflies, spider mites, and mealybugs, and address them promptly.

With proper care and attention, your elephant bush succulent will thrive and become a delightful addition to your plant collection. So go ahead and enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of this enigmatic plant!

Elephant Plant

For more information on succulent care and a wide selection of elephant bush plants, visit the Ames Farm Center.