The elephant bush is a popular low-maintenance houseplant that many people keep in their homes. And it is also known scientifically as the Portulacaria afra.
It originates from Africa, similarly to the African Violet, where it was grown in gardens often. This unique plant is a perennial succulent and is typically easy to take care of if you know what you’re doing. So here is a comprehensive guide of everything you need to know in order to take care of this genus.
We’ll have short but helpful guides on every aspect of taking care of your elephant bush, as well as some tips on how to keep it alive if it becomes ill in spite of your best efforts.
Throughout the world, this succulent has many names other than what we’re referring to it as in this guide. Some of those names include elephant food, dwarf jade, miniature jade, small leaf jade, porkbush, and spekboom.
Another interesting fact about this genus is that it is part of the purslane plant family, also known as the Portulacaceae, but research suggests that this houseplant should actually be part of the Didiereaceae group.
But whether you call it an elephant bush, a porkbush, or a member of the purslane plant family; at the end of the day we’re all talking about the same genus. So let’s learn a bit more about its main characteristics, shall we?
There are some different varieties of this genus, but in this guide we’re only going to cover some of the more popular types. The following varieties are the ones you’d be most likely to see at your local nursery.
- Aurea: This version of the plant is very lightweight and is ideal to grow in places where there isn’t much space. The leaves will be yellowish green at first, but after time in sun they should even out into a nice dark green.
- Foliis variegatus: You’ll find that this variety is an ideal choice for a houseplant because if its slow growth and ability to be grown in a container.
- Medio-picta: Those looking for a colorful and aesthetically pleasing houseplant will be happy with this variety. The medio-picta has green with white-striped leaves, and charming red stems that contrast nicely them.
- Limpopo: This is one of the hardest types of this genus to grow because it needs a lot of upkeep, but it’s known to filter the air due to its broad leaves so many people find that its worth the trouble.
- Variegata: Which is another great houseplant option because it can’t grow in the direct sunlight like its counterparts can. It’s also set apart from other varieties because it has a vertical stalk.
- Cork Bark: For people who don’t want to spend much time maintaining their elephant bush, this variety is the optimal option. And furthermore, it’s quite unique because of its cork-like bark.
- Mammoth: As the name implies, this variation of the Portulacaria afra has very large leaves. Twice the normal size in fact!
- Minima: Also known as the “Lilliput”, this variation is the opposite of the previous one and its trademark is its small size.
Elephant Bush vs. Jade Plant
These two types of houseplants are often mistaken for another due to the fact that they look similar. This is part of the reason why the elephant bush is sometimes called the miniature jade. But they are totally different, and not even part of the same genus.
The main difference between the two is the way they grow. The elephant bush has a harder time staying upright as it gets larger and may need human intervention whereas the jade plant doesn’t have this issue.
Also, the elephant bush has a much darker stem than the jade plant does.
How Big Does It Get?
Of course, depending on which variation of this genus that you choose, size can vary. But a healthy Portulacaria afra can reach an average height of 8 to 15 feet (or 2.4 to 4.5 meters) tall when planted in the ground. You should note though, that this can only happen in certain climate zones.
If you’re growing it indoors then it should only grow to be a few feet tall maximum (or about 1 meter). So this is the height that most people should expect their elephant bush to reach.
How Fast Does It Grow?
Succulents aren’t known for their fast growth rates, so that means that your elephant bush will likely grow quite slowly. But also keep in mind that the variation you have, and the conditions in which it lives will change its growth speed somewhat.
But typically the average for how fast a houseplant will grow is anywhere from 0.8 to 1 inches (2 to 2.5 centimeters) per week. So this goes for the indoor Portulacaria afra as well, just keep in mind the different variables that could effect the rate of growth.
How Long Does It Live?
Things such as sickness, environment, variation, and overall care can alter the lifespan of any plant. But in general, an elephant bush will live about 20 years if it’s properly taken care of.
There have even been some cases in which plants of this genus have been seen living up to 50 years before dying!
Nobody wants to poison themselves or their pets if parts of their houseplants are accidently ingested, so this section is to let you know if your new elephant bush could potentially be toxic to members of your household.
Is It Toxic to Cats and Dogs?
Thankfully, the Portulacaria afra is not toxic to cats or dogs. It’s one of the few completely safe houseplants that poses no threat to the pets in your home. Another popular one is the Peperomia species.
So you can feel free to place this succulent anywhere without worrying whether or not your pets can reach it.
Is It Poisonous to Humans?
Contrary to being toxic, the elephant bush is actually edible for humans. In fact, in Africa this plant is commonly consumed as a part of soups and stews since it adds flavor to dishes.
Elephant Bush Care
Typically these succulents are not difficult to take care of at all, but of course there are variations that require a bit more time spent in upkeep. The following section will contain everything you need to know about keeping your Portulacaria afra thriving!
How Often to Water It
Since this genus is a succulent, it doesn’t require much water and overwatering it can be a trap that many elephant bush owners fall into.
Don’t water it at all during the winter unless the leaves start to shrivel, but that shouldn’t happen until several months after you’ve suspended watering.
During other times of the year you can water your Portulacaria afra, but make sure to let the top inch (2.5 centimeters) of the soil dry before you water it again. You can expect to water your elephant bush about once every week in the summer.
Making sure your Portulacaria afra can drain properly is one of the most important aspects of taking care of it. This genus is particularly susceptible to root rot, so errors with drainage could lead to the death of your plant. In fact, the elephant plant is similar in drainage needs to the Asiatic Lily.
You’ll want to choose a pot that has large drainage holes for your elephant bush to live in. Optimally you would also use something with unglazed pottery, as this will allow excess moisture to evaporate faster.
How to Prune It
Because varieties of this genus tend to grow in irregular patterns, keeping them pruned is an important step to take in order to keep them looking nice and not taking up too much space.
- Firstly you should shape the plant into its desired form. One popular shape for elephant bushes is the classic “bonsai” look.
- Next make sure to remove any dead branches.
- And while you’re at it, clip away any dead or damaged leaves as well.
- Finally, if there are any diseased sections then you should prune and dispose of them as well.
There might be times that you need to repot your Portulacaria afra, but you need to make sure to be careful with it throughout the process as you don’t want to cause any damage.
- A few days before the repotting you could consider watering the plant if possible, to decrease any stress on it when it’s time to move it.
- Ready the new pot by adding the new soil as well as some cactus and succulent mix. Add enough so that the root ball of the elephant bush will be even with the top of the pot.
- Remove the elephant bush from its current pot by squeezing the sides, turning the plant upside-down, and then pulling it out.
- Place your newly removed Portulacaria afra in it’s new pot.
- And lastly, fill in around the sides of the plant with some more soil and make sure it fits snugly but not too tightly.
Even though this genus is fairly easy to keep healthy and can thrive in many conditions, every plant has its limits and optimal environments. So here are the basic environmental requirements of an elephant plant.
Lighting is very important to this genus, and it can make the difference between a thriving houseplant and a struggling one. Light is more important to the Portulacaria afra than heat or water.
Elephant bushes need at least 6 hours of sunlight a day. As long as they have that, they can spend the rest of their time in partial shade and still stay healthy.
You should also note that, much like the Air plant among others, this genus can be exposed to too much intense sunlight which will cause the leaves to turn yellow and brown. So don’t leave it in direct, intense sunlight. It will do best in a brightly lit spot and not directly in the path of the sun.
There are two options for getting the best soil for your Portulacaria afra…
- The first option is to go to your local garden supplier and purchase a soil mix formulated for cactus and/or succulent plants.
- The second option, which is ideal, is to mix some soil yourself with the following recipe: two parts all purpose potting soil, one part horticultural sand, and one part perlite.
Just remember no matter what you choose that the elephant plant does the best in soil that is porous, and well drained.
Choosing the best fertilizer is almost as important as choosing the right soil, and you want to look for a soluble, and well balanced fertilizer (15-15-15) to use. Furthermore, you should add some natural materials such compost tea or coir fiber to the chosen fertilizer for the best results.
Some additional tips for fertilizing your Portulacaria afra include:
- Make sure your plant is watered well before you fertilize it.
- Use half the recommended amount of fertilizer that the box says since you’re working with a succulent.
- Remember that the best time to fertilize an elephant bush is in the spring.
Best Pot Type
The ideal pot for this genus would be an appropriately sized terracotta pot with large drainage holes. This type of pot allows for plenty of drainage which as we’ve mentioned is important to elephant bushes.
The best daytime temperature for a Portulacaria afra is somewhere between 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (18 to 27 degrees Celsius). And the ideal overnight temperatures are from about 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 13 Celsius).
One important note is that the temperature around your elephant bush needs to be consistent as too many changes in temperature can harm the plant. So make sure your plant is not near a draft or an air vent.
A typical room’s humidity level should suffice for this genus, so a humidity of around 30 to 50%.
One thing to be aware of is to not place your elephant bush around air vents or anything else that would be blowing dry air on it. If this plant dries out too much then it could damage the leaves.
Outdoors or Indoors?
This is a hardy succulent, so it will thrive indoors or outdoors as long as its needs are met.
One benefit of growing your Portulacaria afra indoors is that you have more control over all of its environmental conditions. But if you’d like to have it outdoors then that could work as well. Ideal USDA hardiness zones for this plant are 10 and 11.
Blooms are rare to this genus, so you might not ever see your elephant bush grow flowers.
But sometimes under the right conditions, you’ll be able to spot some very small white and pink blooms during the late spring or early summer.
How to Propagate It
If you wish to turn one elephant plant into two or more by propagating it, then don’t worry because the process is fairly simple to do with succulents such as this one.
Propagation in Soil
- Take a desired cutting off of the original plant.
- Place the cutting on a paper towel and leave it there until you see calluses starting to form. This step might take a couple of days.
- After the calluses have formed than you’re free to move it to its pot, make sure to fill the pot with both potting soil and succulent/cactus mix.
- Keep the newly propagated plant in a warm and sunny location until the new roots start to form.
- Move your new little elephant plant to your chosen location.
Propagation in Water
- Choose a desired cutting or leaf to propagate with.
- Let the cutting or leaf dry until the cut edge has calloused.
- Find a cup that is the appropriate size and fill it with water.
- Place the cutting so that the end of the stem is either barely resting on the water or is resting right above the surface.
- Place the cup in a sunny spot.
- Wait for roots to grow, refilling the cup as necessary.
- Once roots have grown you can allow the cuttings to dry.
- Plant cuttings as usual.
How to Revive It
No matter how well you take care of a plant, one basic rule of gardening is that you can’t control everything. Sometimes, houseplants will still fall ill. And in this case, it helps to know what to expect and how to revive your plant if this does happen. Here are some common ailments of the Portulacaria afra.
Signs of sun scorch include dry-lead edges, brown leaves, leaves with a crispy texture, sunken leaves, and stunted growth.
If you think your elephant bush is suffering from sun scorch then you should remove the damaged leaves, increase watering while the plant is recovering, and decrease the amount of time that it is in the sun.
This genus is more susceptible to root rot than some others, much like the Oxalis genus, so you need to know what to look for. Signs of root rot include yellowing leaves, a rotten brown base, moldy soil, and stunted growth.
Houseplants suffering from root rot will need to be repotted and the diseased root sections, which will be brown and mushy, will need to removed. Make sure in the future to water your succulent less, as root rot is caused by too much moisture.
Leaves Falling Off
There can be many reasons for the leaves of an elephant bush to fall off so this isn’t an ailment in of itself, but we’re still going to address it in this guide because it is such a common issue with this genus.
Ailments like were listed above could be to blame for this, or it could have to do with several other potential issues such as a lack of nutrients in the soil or a infestation of some sort of pest.
If your Portulacaria afra is losing leaves then you need to first identify which of those issues is causing it, and then treat that issue appropriately. If it’s lacking nutrients then fertilize it and change the soil, if there’s an infect infestation then clear it up, etc.
Similarly to the previous section, wrinkled leaves isn’t a technical disease by itself but is caused by other things such as underwatering, overwatering, or too much sunlight.
If you notice wrinkling leaves on your plant then take a closer look at your watering habits and how much sunlight the plant is getting in order to diagnose the issue and then remedy whatever it is that you’re underdoing or overdoing in order to clear up the issue.
Wrapping It Up
This easy to deal with succulent is a great addition to any home, and can be used in more homes than some houseplants because of its lack of toxicity to people and pets.
As long as you understand its needs, it’s a very easy houseplant to tend to. So the elephant bush is a great addition to your indoor decor, or your outdoor garden!