Elephant bush, Portulacaria afra, is a South African perennial succulent shrub that is grown in succulent gardens all over the world. In our region of the world, it is simply planted as a seasonal accent plant or low-maintenance houseplant. It is a rocky outcrop or slope that can be found from the Little Karoo in the Western Cape to the Eastern Cape northward into KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, Mpumalanga, the Limpopo Province, and farther north into Mozambique. It is also sometimes called elephant food or elephant plant; dwarf jade, miniature jade, or small leaf jade (but is not related to jade plant, Crassula ovata);
Although it is thought to belong to the Portulacaceae plant family, which only includes species found in Madagascar, molecular phylogenetic studies indicate this genus belongs to the Didiereaceae. According to recent studies, P. afra is a superior “carbon sponge” that can efficiently absorb more carbon from the air than most other plants (since it can grow using both normal and CAM pathways despite challenging climatic conditions) and remove more carbon from the atmosphere than an equivalent amount of deciduous forest.
In mild regions, this upright, multi-stemmed shrub or small tree with soft woods can reach heights of 8 to 15 feet (hardy in zones 9- 11). Round to oval-shaped, fleshy, virtually sessile (lacks a discernible petiole), 1/2–3/4 inch long leaves are flattened and thick. The tapering branches and brittle, fleshy, reddish-brown stems that support the opposing, glossy leaves eventually turn a grayish color. The branches and trunk have a woody inner tissue despite being succulent. If not clipped, the stiff, disorganized branches will develop into a thicket. In the event that heavy branches break, they frequently take root where they land and start new plants. Jade plant-like in appearance, but with much smaller leaves that are typically closer together on thinner stalks.
The leaf was once employed as a medicine for a number of minor diseases. It is edible and is frequently consumed in southern Africa, mainly in salads or soups to provide a sour flavor. Because of its capacity to stay succulent through periods of scorching heat and dryness, it is commonly consumed by domestic and wild animals and is a favorite diet of tortoises. Elephants do consume the plant, leaving behind the lower, spreading branches and numerous broken twigs when they strip the branches of the leaves. These roots eventually help the colony to grow and thicken, giving rise to new thickets called “spekboomvelds.”
The plant cannot survive because other animals, including goats, devour it from the ground up. Except in places like parks or reserves where non-native browsers are restricted, overgrazing and inadequate regeneration are causing elephant bush populations to decline. This is because P. afra seed has a difficult time germinating in its native habitat.
After a dry winter without irrigation, plants in their natural habitat (or in regions like Southern California where they can be planted in the ground) produce a profusion of small, unnoticeable pink or white blooms in late spring or early summer. The flowers are difficult to cultivate. At the tips of the branches, clusters of flowers are created. Five pointed petals and conspicuous stamens are features of the star-shaped blooms. Tiny, clear to pink, berry-like dry fruits with one seed each follow pollinated flowers.
Elephant bushes thrive best in hanging baskets, as part of mixed succulent dish gardens, or as delicate bonsai specimens in the Midwest because of their dense branching, which lends even young plants a venerable appearance. By pinching or trimming just above a pair of leaves, the plant may easily be retained in practically any size or form because it readily generates buds whenever branches or even leaves are removed.
The succulent plant’s compact root ball fits into standard shallow bonsai pots nicely and requires less continual care because it can tolerate drying better than more classic bonsai subjects like maples or evergreens. To add contrast in color and texture, stage plants in containers alone with other potted plants. However, despite the fact that they may grow in very little soil, because of their top-heavy succulent leaves and stems, plants may need to be anchored with a rock or stake until they are well-established. The stems’ crimson hue works well as a color echo with plants with red, purple, or dark foliage, and the medium-fine texture of the foliage contrasts nicely with wide-leaved annuals or perennials like coleus or heucheras. To thrive, Portulacaria afra needs exceptionally well-drained soil and bright light. Avoid using a lot of sand since the particle size tends to be small and will fill pore spaces more quickly than other materials. Instead, use cactus mix or a bespoke potting medium with generous amounts of small pea gravel, poultry grit, pumice, or other non-porous minerals. The best pottery to use for better moisture evaporation is unglazed pottery. Typically, a south-facing window inside is the best option, but eastern or western exposures are also suitable. Too much direct sunlight may burn the foliage or cause the tips of the leaves to turn yellow or red, which some people love. To locate the best position for optimum growth, some location-testing may be necessary. After all threat of frost has gone, potted plants can be brought outside for the growing season. If a plant is suddenly relocated from inside a house to full sun outdoors, the leaves are likely to become burnt. Instead, gradually adapt the plant to the new environment. When the nighttime temperature falls below 40°F, go back inside. If there is less light indoors than there was outdoors, it can lose some leaves when it transitions.
Elephant bushes are quite drought resilient, yet with enough water, they develop more quickly and have lusher foliage. It is vulnerable to root rot in constantly damp soil, so take care not to overwater it. Winter irrigation should be minimized. Withhold water until the lower leaves start to shrink, which could take several months, unless the indoor climate is extremely light and warm. Once the day lengthens in the spring, begin watering sparingly once more, waiting until the soil has dried to a depth of one inch before doing so. Plants in pots need fertilizer every month during the growing season (or more frequently if pruning a lot to grow a dense plant in a small container). Repot the plant when the container is full or when the roots are poking through the drainage holes. Although mealybugs can be a problem, especially indoors, this plant has few pests. It does not tolerate some pesticide applications, like many succulents do. Chemicals with a petroleum base should be avoided, or tested on a small number of leaves first to ensure that the material won’t harm the leaves.
This plant can be grown from seed, however cuttings are the most common method of propagation. Within 4 to 6 weeks in any kind of potting medium at mild temperatures, stem cuttings can easily root. The optimum times to take cuttings are in the spring or summer, and the cut areas should be given a few days to callus before being placed in the rooting media. They can also take root in liquid. Even leaves that are broken off by accident while trimming or performing other tasks have the potential to take root.
There are many different kinds, but the majority of them can only be found at specialized nurseries. It is conceivable that some mislabeling occurs, which could lead to the sale of identical plants under several labels. The green varieties are typically larger and more robust than the variegated varieties.
- ‘Aurea’ is a compact type, and in full sun, the young leaves are a vivid yellow.
- Because of its fissured, corky bark, “Cork Bark,” chosen by a bonsai expert, is coveted for bonsai.
- The slow-growing variegated variant “Foliis variegatus” is perfect for container culture.
- The leaves on “Limpopo” are substantially bigger. It is the species’ most northern native form (P. afra forma macrophylla).
- The variety known as “Medio-picta” has red stems and green leaves with pale patterns radiating from the center.
- Low-growing varieties that are good for use as ground covers are “Prostrata” and “Low Form.”
- Variegata has a more compact, upright form, lighter-colored leaves with pink accents and white or cream edges than the species, although it is less tolerant of direct sunlight.
Is the elephant bush toxic?
The leaves of the Portulacaria Afra “Elephant Bush” are edible and safe for people and animals. On the website of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), you can find helpful advice as well as a thorough list of plants that are hazardous and harmless to cats, dogs, and other indoor pets. If you have any suspicions about poisoning, call your neighborhood vet right away or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435.
Consider giving these Portulacaria Afra ‘Elephant Bush’ a try if you’re searching for a simple, low-maintenance succulent plant that will pay off for years and years to come. You won’t be sorry. I discovered this amazing plant because to a misidentification, and it has since grown to be one of my all-time favorites.
Where is Portulacaria Afra, often known as the “Elephant Bush”? For suggestions on where to buy these and other succulent plants online, visit my resource page.
You’ve come to the correct location if, like me, you enjoy succulents. This website is a repository for the succulent-growing knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years and am still learning. Although I am by no means an expert on succulents and cacti, this website was created as a result of years of hard work, love, and many mistakes and learning opportunities.
What is the benefit of elephant bush?
Uses. Portulacaria afra is a fantastic plant “high quantities of carbon from the air as a carbon sponge. As the term “As the name “Elephant Food” suggests, goats and tortoises also consume this succulent. In order to provide a sour flavor to salads, soups, and stews, it is frequently utilized in Southern African cooking.
Are the plants that elephants eat toxic?
Elephant ears are not as poisonous as Dieffenbachia, but it is still advisable to use caution, especially if you have young children or animals. The most poisonous components of plants are the leaves and stems. If you get the sap in your eyes, it will sting and burn for several hours. Even touching them can cause skin irritation and stinging.
The earliest signs of leaf ingestion in a child or cat are tingling or burning in the mouth or lips. Unless a substantial amount is consumed, elephant ear poisoning rarely results in death. A few additional signs and symptoms of this plant are listed below:
- extreme eye redness or burning
- severe mouth, tongue, and lip burning
- tongue, lips, and eye swelling
Call the national poison control hotline at 1-800-222-1222 or your neighborhood poison control center if you think your child may have consumed elephant ear leaves. Keep your child quiet and wipe out her mouth with a cool, damp towel rather than forcing her to puke. If your eyes are itching, rinse them out with water. You should dial 9-1-1 or go to the closest emergency room if your child’s lips or mouth start to swell. Contact your veterinarian right away if your pet consumes elephant ears.
Why is it known as a “elephant bush”?
South Africa is the natural home of the succulent elephant bush (Portulacaria afra). The succulent plant’s popular name, elephant bush, derives from the fact that elephants eat it. The succulent’s fleshy leaves are consumed by elephants. The elephant bush plant’s variegated leaves are also edible to goats and tortoises. Elephant bush is also known by the names spekboom, dwarf jade, miniature jade, and porkbush.
Elephant bushes are prized for their adaptable leaves, which bonsai growers frequently mold into interesting patterns. The elephant bush is a simple addition to your bonsai succulent garden. South Africa is also known for its love of elephant bush soups and stews. The elephant bush succulent is drought-tolerant and does well in direct sunlight outside, like most desert plants. Elephant bush plants thrive in USDA hardiness zones ten and eleven.
How is the elephant plant consumed?
“A collection of tropical perennial plants farmed for their huge, heart-shaped leaves are collectively known as elephant ears. Although there are others with a similar appearance and growth pattern, the majority of these herbaceous plants in the arum or aroid family (Araceae) that are sold as ornamentals belong to the genera Colocasia, Alocasia, and Xanthosoma.
While Xanthosoma is endemic to tropical America, the first two genera are native to tropical southern Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Guinea, sections of Australia, or the Pacific Islands. In tropical areas, several of the species are grown for their edible starchy corms or tubers, which serve as a significant staple food.
The leaves must first be boiled before eating them because they contain calcium oxalate crystals that resemble needles and are skin irritants.
C. esculenta, sometimes known as taro and other common names, is one of the species that is grown the most frequently. Over 200 cultivars have been selected for their culinary or ornamental qualities, and it has been grown for thousands of years throughout Asia and Polynesia. This species is regarded as an invasive species throughout the Gulf Coast and easily naturalizes in wetlands in temperate areas.
These plants are cultivated in Midwestern gardens for their flat, sagittate (arrow- or heart-shaped) leaves, which frequently have noticeable veins. The smooth, waxy leaves can reach lengths of 3 feet and 2 feet or more in their natural habitat, depending on the species, but they are often considerably smaller when cultivated as a seasonal plant.
Long, thick, succulent petioles that grow directly from the underground corm support the leaves at their tips. With the leaves held perpendicular to the erect petiole and pointing upward or outward, the petiole attaches close to the middle of the lower surface of the leaf (peltate).
Alocasia and Xanthosoma typically have less peltate leaves that are held more upright. Typically, corms are used to cultivate these plants (commonly called bulbs, although they are not true bulbs),
However, some varieties also develop long, slender stolons (above-ground runners), while others fail to generate corms. The tough, bumpy corms have a brown exterior and a white or pink interior. Some varieties of elephant ears also have tiny cormels, sometimes known as “eddos,” that sprout from the sides of the main corm.
Elephant ears can blossom, however blooms are uncommon in the Midwest where they are largely grown for their foliage. The typical aroid inflorescences have a spathe that surrounds the spadix and ranges in color from white to yellow or light green. Large, aromatic, and appealing, they can also be hidden beneath the greenery. Fruits are multiseeded, globular green or yellow berries.
Historically, the only elephant ear available to Midwest gardeners was the matte-finish, emerald-green standard C. esculenta, but over the past two decades, breeding operations have resulted in a large number of new decorative variants. They range in size from 8 inches to more than 9 feet, although the majority are between 3 and 5 feet. (C. esculenta unless otherwise specified) Some of the many intriguing varieties that are readily available include:
- One of the Royal Hawaiian Series plants, “Black Coral,” has enormous, glossy, all-black corrugated leaves.
- The first black cultivar, “Black Magic,” had dusty purple-black leaves with dark petioles that were folded inward and had green overtones in shaded areas. It doesn’t develop corms.
- The Royal Hawaiian Series’ “Blue Hawaii” cultivar has maroon undersides and medium-green leaves with dark purple-black veins.
- A tall cultivar called “Burgundy Stem” has dark purple petioles on top of broad, green leaves with a faint purple tinge.
- Similar to “Illustris,” “Coal Miner” emerges considerably sooner, spreads less quickly underground, has a darker background leaf color, and initially has leaves with a velvety patina.
- The robust hybrid known as “Coffee Cups”—sometimes wrongly referred to as “Tea Cups”—has smaller leaves on extremely tall, black petioles, with the blades bent upward into a cup-shape.