Elephant Bush Care: How To Grow And Care For The Portulacaria Afra
Whether you grow it as a houseplant or out in the garden, there’s nothing more exotic or fabulous than the elephant bush. As far as succulents go, the adorable and majestic elephant bush is more than just a plant you grow for its good looks. The leaves of the plant absorb pollutants in the air as well as carbon dioxide leaving your house smelling fresh and clean.
Some plants have ornamental values while others offer a strong fragrance. But few landscaping succulents can be eaten let alone those that clean up the air in your house. That’s not all, however. As we’ll see, there’s more to the elephant bush than meets the eye. So let’s take a closer look and see how you can grow and care for this unique succulent.
All about the Elephant Bush
The elephant bush (Portulacaria Afra) is a native of South Africa. As a succulent, it can grow in just about any environment. Indoors or outdoors suit it just fine. Although it’s recommended that you grow it indoors for all the benefits we just laid out. And it has as many names as it has uses. People know it as Miniature Jade, Elephant’s Food, and Spekboom in its native habitat in South Africa.
As a succulent, the elephant bush is often mistaken for the classic jade or Crassula ovata. However even though they look alike in many ways, you can tell the classic jade by the way it grows upright without the need for support. The elephant bush, on the other hand, needs support as it tends to droop and can’t support its meaty leaves.
Those same meaty leaves are the reason it’s so popular in South African cuisine. Thanks to its sour flavor, you can add it to stews, salads, and soups. And if you’re wondering where this succulent got its name from, well you don’t have wonder anymore. Many animals including elephants and goats feed on its crunchy leaves and stalks. Even tortoises subsist on this exotic plant whenever they come across it.
But apart from its uses as food, its ornamental benefits are beyond any doubt. The glossy dark green leaves are stunning as much as they are edible. The stems are usually red to create a wonderful color combination. When fully grown, the plant is about 8 to 15 feet high.
Elephant Bush Varieties
While the elephant bush comes in many varieties, the chances are you’ll only have a number of species available in your local nursery. The other varieties are so rare, only specialized horticultural centers grow them. Here are the most common varieties.
- Aurea: A compact succulent that fits in small spaces whether indoors or outdoors. Its most distinctive features are its leaves. They start as yellowish-green in the sun before they mature and turn dark green.
- Foliis variegatus: Another variety that you can grow in a container. You’ll love this species since it has a rather slow growth rate making its maintenance much easier.
- Medio-picta: This multi-colored species is quite popular for its green leaves with distinct white markings. Along with the red stems, the plant has a high ornamental value.
- Limpopo: This species has large leaves that absorb the pollutants in the air. It can be hard to maintain and requires regular pruning to keep it under control.
- Variegata: Literally stands out among other elephant bush species thanks to its upright stalk. The green leaves have white or cream outlines with reddish hues. The only drawback is that it doesn’t do well in direct sunlight. So you should grow it indoors.
- Cork Bark: As the name implies, this species has a unique bark with fissures just like a cork. It’s the best variety to grow as bonsai, not just for its looks, but also for ease of care and maintenance.
How to Plant the Elephant Bush
Since this is a versatile semi-perennial succulent that can adapt to many conditions, you have lots of options regarding how to grow it. You can grow it in a container or pot as a houseplant or you can grow it outdoors in a hanging basket or in the garden. The elephant bush makes an excellent bonsai since its roots are suited to shallow bonsai containers.
- Choose a suitable pot or container. For indoors, an unglazed pot with plenty of drainage holes will do just fine.
- For best results, try a potting mix similar to the cactus mix. However, you should add some pumice or poultry pit to the mix to improve aeration.
- If you don’t have that, then adding some regular sand, about one-third portion, to the potting mix will give you the ideal mix similar to the natural habitat of the elephant bush.
- Make a hole in the soil deeper and wider than the rootball of the plant and place it in it.
- Fill the hole with soil and pack it gently to make sure the succulent stands on its own.
- You might need to erect stakes to keep the plant upright.
- Sprinkle a thin layer of worm compost on top of the soil. It will give the plant the slow-release nutrition it needs for many weeks to come.
- Water the soil thoroughly until excess water flows out of the drainage holes.
- You should wait for the soil to go dry, about half the soil in the pot before you water it again. This succulent resists drought admirably and doesn’t do well in wet soil.
- You can either grow it alone in the container or grow other plants to create a great landscape.
Elephant Bush Care
As you can see, there’s nothing tricky about planting the elephant bush. This hardy succulent can handle any soil, weather conditions, and temperature you grow it in. It has USDA hardiness zones between 9 and 11. This means it favors warm weather and plenty of light.
Soil and Repotting
Because they don’t have a penetrating root system, the elephant bush doesn’t require much soil. It will grow in small pots, shallow containers, or even hanging baskets. As a top-heavy plant, you’ll need to worry about supporting the meaty leaves and stems than worry about the roots. Make sure the soil is loose with enough non-porous material in it to improve aeration and prevent waterlogging. You’ll need to repot it once every couple of years and use fresh soil every time to ensure it’s getting enough nutrients with every repotting.
When a plant can handle dry soil so well, you might wonder, why would I need to worry about watering it? Well, for the same reason you grow it indoors in the first place. To make sure it thrives and gives you those wonderful glossy leaves with their multi-shades. With adequate amounts of water, the foliage grows thicker and richer. However, you need to watch out for those sensitive and shallow roots. They don’t do well with overwatering. Root rot is a common problem with this succulent and with the heavy foliage, it might topple down easily. In the winter, you need to scale back irrigation. One good indication that the plant needs watering is when the base leaves show signs of wilting. Indoor plants where the temperature is often stable need less watering than those you grow in the garden.
Light and Temperature
The best way to understand the light and temperature requirements of the elephant bush, all you need to do is to look at the conditions in its natural habitat in South Africa. It’s an environment that’s often flooded in natural light and soaked in high levels of humidity. What this means is that you can grow it outdoors in full light without problems. However, for indoor plants moving outside, the sudden change in lighting conditions can cause the leaves to burn and fall. To err on the side of caution, make sure your elephant bush is protected from direct sunlight. Partial shade is ideal for it.
Pests and Diseases
You might notice some cottony white spots spreading across the glossy leaves of the elephant bush. These are mealybugs making themselves comfortable in your houseplant succulent. Other pests that attack the plant include whiteflies and spider mites. To get rid of them, just use a swap soaked in alcohol to wipe off the white spots or push the bugs off the leaves and stems. Collect them and drop them in a bucket of water to kill them.
As for diseases, we already mentioned the root rot when the soil gets waterlogged. The leaves will turn yellow and droop when there’s root damage. Hold off watering until the soil goes dry. If the plant doesn’t recover, you might need to repot it and remove all damaged roots to give it a fresh start.
To grow a new plant out of the mature elephant bush, you can use stem cuttings for easy propagation. Pick a healthy stem and cut it using sterile scissors. Set the stem aside for a few days in the shade until the cut is covered with callous. This is important to prevent the stem from rotting when you plant it. When the cut is dried up, prepare your potting mix and plant the stem.
Water the plant and place it in a shaded spot away from the direct sunlight. It will take the stem between 4 to 6 weeks to grow roots and establish in the soil.