Portulacaria afra “Elephant Bush Care”

“Elephant Bush,” “Elephant Food,” “Dwarf Jade”

The name Portulacaria afra “Elephant Bush” may not tell you anything, but I am convinced that you have seen this plant more than once when visiting a nursery or a garden shop, the rainbow elphant bush.

It is very easy to take care plant, so much so that it is suitable for beginners.

Also, you can have it both in the garden and in a pot.

You just have to keep our tips in mind.

Origin and characteristics

The protagonist is a succulent non-cactus plant native to South Africa whose scientific name is Portulacaria afra.

It is popularly known as an elephant bush, although it can confuse many people, it is not a tree, but a bush or at most, a small tree.

It reaches a height of between 2.5 and 4.5 meters.

It develops cylindrical stems, from which leaves of less than 1cm or less, fleshy, and green, or variegated (Portulacaria afra f. Variegata) arise.

The flowers are grouped into inflorescences and appear in summer.

You may like all types of succulents

Types of Portulacaria afra 

Nurseries sometimes label portulacarias “miniature jade,” but let’s not encourage that. Btw, in its native South Africa, it’s commonly called “spekboom.”

  • Portulacaria afra grows 6 to 8 feet tall and spreads indefinitely. Use it as a backdrop plant, and/or prune into a hedge.
  • Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’ (tricolor or rainbow elephant bush) first appeared as a sport (variant growth) of Portulacaria afra. It has cream-and-green leaves and pendant, trailing stems; and forms low, shrubby mounds that spread several feet tall and wide. Excellent for slopes, terraces, tall pots and hanging baskets.
  • Portulacaria afra ‘Minima’ (‘Prostrata’, ‘Decumbent’, “low form” or “elephant mat”). First appeared as a sport of ‘Variegata’ and is smaller overall, with dainty green leaves.
  • Portulacaria afra ‘Aurea’ is the same as ‘Minima’, but leaves are yellow or chartreuse.
  • Portulacaria aframacrophylla(large-leaf elephant food) is less common. Waterwise Botanicals nursery gave it an elephant’s mouthful of a name: “Portulacaria afra macrophylla gigantea ‘Bull-ephant Bush’.”
  • Uncommon varieties include Portulacaria afra ‘Skyscraper’ which is narrow and upright; Portulacaria afra ‘Cork Bark’ with rough stems; and Portulacaria afra ‘Medio-picta’, a cream-pink-and-green variegate of ‘Minima’.

Environmental benefits:

Elephant’s food “has enormous carbon-storing capabilities,” says South Africa’s Spekboom Foundation. “Its capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions is 10 times more effective per hectare at carbon fixing than any tropical rainforest.”

In its native habitat, Portulacaria afra provides 80 percent of the diet of elephants.

The resulting broken, fallen branches root readily. Although sometimes confused with jade (Crassula ovata), the two plants are quite different.

Stems of portulacaria branch every which way, are red in color, and are tough and wiry. You’ll need clippers to take portulacaria cuttings, but you can snap jade stems with your fingers.

Design tip: Succulents are the hot new trend in gardening and home décor. Easy care and low maintenance means fabulous designs without the fuss!

1.Thriller – Think tall, spikey, large and/or unique. You want this component to be the show stopper. If you are wanting to design a rounded ball look to your container, choose a large, bold, succulent with sharp lines.

Filler – These are meant to complement not compete with your thriller while adding depth and design.

Spiller – Adding a succulent to cascade over your pot or container is like icing on the cake. Something soft and subtle or perhaps a bit bold. Create a natural flow for the eyes with just a bit of trailing vine flowing over an edge.

2. What about color? Color will play a large part in your design. Succulents come in an array of colors making it easy to create cool design of contrasting colors. Monochromatic doesn’t have to be boring. Choose varying shades of a single color for added dimensions in your design and experiment with different shapes and sizes of the same color.

3.Keep it in the family. While several species are in the succulent family, not all require the same amount of light or water. Choose succulents that have similar watering and light needs to ensure a happy place for your succulents to survive and thrive!

Flowers: If kept dry and stressed, plants produce sprays of tiny purple flowers summer into fall.

Etting these plants to bloom in cultivation is rare, and even rarer for them to bloom in containers or when kept indoors. I have all of mines growing in containers outdoors. They produce clusters of tiny white, pink or purple flowers.

To encourage blooms, make sure they are getting adequate lighting.  Along with proper lighting and the right environmental conditions, they also need to go through a wintering period.

This can be achieved by keeping them cool and dry in the winter months, with temperatures just above freezing between 35-44⁰F (1.5-7⁰C). I keep my plants outdoors all year and we get plenty of rain during the winter months so the chances of mines blooming will be slim, but I haven’t given up hope yet because anything is possible.

Bonsai:No matter how much experience you have with gardening, you can probably recognize a bonsai tree when you see it. Whether you’re attracted to the miniature aesthetic or zen atmosphere of the bonsai, the appeal of those tiny trees is understandable. What if you could apply that unique style of gardening to succulents?

The good news is: you can! Succulents are ideal for bonsai, so if you’re looking for a new project or something interesting to try with your plants, give bonsai a chance.

If you’re short on space, bonsai is also a great way of keeping your succulents small and more manageable. It’s also a great option for succulent lovers who wish they could give their plants a little more hands-on attention.  Bonsai-style gardening is a great way to get creative with your succulents and try out a new hobby.

Bonsai is a Japanese style of gardening that seeks to recreate the shape and appearance of mature plants, but on a smaller scale. The tradition dates to over a thousand years ago. Bonsai plants are meant to bring the beauty of nature into more compact living spaces.

As you can imagine, bonsai is not a fast-paced hobby. It requires patience and ingenuity from a gardener. Most gardeners get into bonsai because of its peaceful nature.

It’s a great stress reliever and many gardeners report a sense of accomplishment when they feel they’ve shaped their bonsai into the miniature plant that they’ve been envisioning.

Typically, bonsai plants are cultivated and trimmed to keep them at a manageable size, while shaping them until they resemble tiny mature plants. The roots are often trimmed as well to keep the plant small and bonsai are usually planted in shallow dishes or planters.

The most common type of plant used in bonsai are woody-stemmed trees or shrubs, but succulents are becoming a more popular choice for bonsai lovers. Any plant that be trimmed regularly with little to no ill effect will make a good bonsai.

Jade and portulacaria make good bonsai, but the latter is much easier to bend and train. Create gnarled stems by scoring with a knife.

Firebreak: The species is used in South Africa and SoCA in fire-prone areas, planted as a perimeter hedge.

Edible: Elephants eat it, but you need not fear for your Portulacaria unless you have a pet pachyderm. The plant is a succulent with fleshy, glossy leaves that grows as a small bush. They are only hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 10 and 11. Elephant bush houseplants (Portulacaria afra) thrive in bright light in a warm, draft free room.

Portulacaria leaves are high in Vitamin-C, have a juicy crunch and make a nice salad garnish. They do taste sour. Eat green leaves only; those that are variegated are bitter. Try it and let me know what you think.

If you are looking for an easy, low maintenance succulent plant that will reward you for years and years to come, consider giving these Portulacaria Afra ‘Elephant Bush’ a try and you won’t be sorry. A mistaken identity led me to this awesome plant, and it has become one of my all-time favorites ever since.

Portulacaria afra “Elephant Bush” Care:

Portulacaria afra "Elephant Bush Care"


It can be both outside and inside, but it must be placed in a bright area since it does not live well in semi-shade.


Just like with other succulent plants, Portulacaria Afra ‘Elephant Bush’ needs a well draining soil. I have been using a simple concoction that has worked well for my plants. I like to use a cactus potting mix combined with perlite for more drainage. I do not use exact measurements but eyeball it to about 2:1 solution of cactus mix and perlite. Others recommend using a sandy soil. This can be achieved by mixing cactus mix or potting soil with coarse sand (about 2:1 ratio)

Pot: universal culture substrate mixed with perlite in equal parts.

Garden: it is indifferent as long as it has good drainage.


Watering largely depends on the climate you live in. These plants are highly adapted to dry conditions and drought but they thrive when given sufficient water. There really isn’t a set schedule or formula on when to water succulent plants like these.

I live in a very dry climate so my watering schedule is adapted to the dry conditions of my environment. In the summer months, I water my Elephant Bush as often as every 7-10 days, sometimes more during a heatwave, giving the plant a good drink. I cut back on watering to about 10-14 days when the weather cools down.

If you live in a humid location, you won’t need to water as much. And if you keep your plants indoors, you may not have to water as much especially if they are not receiving a lot of light. During winter season, I mostly rely on rainwater and hold back on watering altogether because this is when we get a lot of rain in my area. But if we don’t get any rain at all during winter then I water at least once a month or every 2-3 weeks.

One good way to tell whether it’s time to water is to check the moisture of the soil. The top inch of the soil needs to feel dry before you can water again. If you are unsure how much and how often to water in the beginning, it’s always better to underwater and increase watering as needed. Pay attention to how your plant looks and you can adjust watering accordingly.


Wondering about succulent fertilizer? Often people think that you don’t need fertilizer for succulents. Just like most plants though, succulents will benefit from regular fertilizing. Find out how often you should fertilize and what you should use!

As with all plants, succulents need nutrients to help them grow healthy and beautiful. Surprisingly though not many people think succulents need fertilizer!

While they can get some of the nutrients they need from the soil, fertilizer will help them grow more full and produce better colors.

You do have to be careful not to use a fertilizer that is too strong, otherwise the succulents can burn. However, the right fertilizer used every few months can dramatically change how well your succulents thrive.

How often do you need fertilizer

While you can fertilize succulents as often as once a month, especially if you’re using manure tea, they will generally do just fine with one fertilizing each year in the spring.

For a lot of succulents this is the beginning of their growing season so they can are ready to use the added nutrients. If you have mostly winter growing succulents, I’d recommend fertilizing in the fall.

If you decide to use something other than manure tea for your succulent fertilizer, stay away from slow release options. These are extremely potent and can often burn the succulents rather than help them grow. I recommend using a water soluble fertilizer diluted to half the recommended strength.

From the beginning of spring until the end of summer (it can even be done in autumn if you live in an area with a mild climate or without frosts) it must be paid with specific fertilizers for cacti and other succulents.

This must be liquid if grown in a pot, but it can be in granules if it is in the soil.

Planting time

The ideal time to plant in the garden is in spring when the risk of frost has passed. If you have it in a pot, you should transplant it every two years.


The rainbow elephant bush or portulacaria afra is multiplied by seeds or, more frequently, by stem cuttings. Let us know how to proceed in each case:


The step by step to follow is as follows:

1. In spring or summer fill a seedbed (like this one you can get here) with a universal culture substrate mixed with perlite in equal parts.

2. water so that the substrate is very wet.

3. place 2-3 seeds in each socket and cover them with a very thin layer of the substrate.

4. water, this time with a sprayer.

5. insert the seedbed into a tray without holes.

Now it will only be to put everything in a bright area and go watering preventing the substrate from losing moisture. Thus, they will germinate in 2-3 weeks.


The next step is as follows:

1. In spring, you have to cut a stem with leaves that looks healthy.

2. You should let the wound dry for a week in semi-shade.

3. After that time, you plant it in a pot with a universal culture substrate mixed with perlite in equal parts.

4. And last, you will only have to water and place the pot in a bright area.

In about 3 weeks it will begin to emit its own roots.


It is a quite resistant plant.

However, it would not be uncommon for, especially in summer, to have some aphid or cottony mealybug.

But these attacks are not serious, and in fact, with a small brush and some water, they can be easily removed.

When the stem base is irrigated excessively, it rots. Doing so can harm fungi such as Phytophthora.

The treatment consists of applying fungicides and watering only when necessary.

Toxicity to cats,dogs or pets

Portulacaria Afra ‘Elephant Bush’ foliage are edible and non-toxic to pets and humans. The ASPCA’s (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) website provides valuable information and a comprehensive list of toxic and nontoxic plants for cats, dogs, and other house pets. If you suspect poisoning, contact your local veterinarian immediately or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435.


Resists cold and frost up to -2ºC.

Frost Tolerance

Portulacaria Afra can tolerate mild frost and freezing temperatures as long as they are not for long periods of time. If you live in USDA hardiness zones 9-11, you can leave the plant outdoors all year long and they can even be planted in ground. If you have extreme winter conditions in your area, the best way to grow these plants are in containers. That way you can bring them indoors during winter or when there is forecast of frost or snow.

If for whatever reason you cannot bring the plants in, there are ways to protect them from frost or freezing temperatures. You can use frost cloths or mini greenhouses to help them survive the cold winter. Here are some of my recommendations for frost protection.

Sunlight Requirements

Portulacaria Afra ‘Elephant Bush’ does best in areas that receive plenty of sunlight. They can tolerate partial sun to full sun, but they prefer bright filtered sunlight. They need to be acclimated to full sun or the leaves will get sunburned.

If kept outdoors, place in a bright sunny location. Before moving the plant outdoors or increasing the amount of sunlight it receives, it is better to acclimate the plant to help prevent sunburn or sun damage. Slowly increase the amount of sunlight it receives until it is fully acclimated to the sun. Keep in mind that even when the plant is already acclimated to full sun, it can still get sunburned during a heatwave or intense heat.

Indoor Lighting

If caring for the plant indoors, provide the brightest light possible in the house. A south facing window will work best, but an east or west facing windows will also do. You may need to move the plant a few times until you find the right spot. Ideally, the plant needs at least 5-6 hours of light.

Conclusion: Look at this Portulacaria afra Bonsai

The rainbow elephant bush is a plant that is used as an ornamental.

Portulacaria afra (Elephant Bush)  An upright growing plant (8-12 feet tall) with reddish brown stems and 1/2 inch long emerald green succulent leaves.

In dry years it can produce showy tiny pale lavender flowers held near the branch tips in summer months, but up until recently this plant rarely was seen in bloom as it needed drier conditions than Southern California usually has had to reliably produce flowers but after the drier winters we are experiencing with our global climate change, this plant seems to be blooming more where plants are not irrigated.

They start out as a small bush and eventually grow tree-like. The stem gets thicker over time as the plant matures. These plants are very easy to grow and propagate. They are hardiest in USDA zones 9-11. They grow upright horizontally but can also spread out laterally and sprawl or hang, which makes them a great choice for hanging baskets.

Portulacaria Afra, commonly known as Elephant Bush, are often mistaken for Crassula Ovata ‘Jade Plants’ because they resemble each other in a lot of ways. Although Elephant Bush closely resemble Jade Plants in appearance, they are not at all related. I am guilty of making this mistake when I first got a hold of an Elephant Bush plant.

Hope this article was help full.

I always encourage all my friends to enter the world of succulents. Experiments, care and lessons are always a positive thing that you will have taking care of succulents. And in time you will have beautiful succulents throughout your house.