Guest Author - Linda Genis
Like many other succulents, Portulacaria afra has a host of aliases. It is knows as elephant food, elephant bush, small leaf jade and Spekboom. It is indeed eaten by elephants, who nibble from the top down and spread broken pieces where they take root and form new plants. It is also a favorite of goats, who nibble from the bottom. If the same plant is eaten by both animals it can disappear down to the ground.
The roundish green leaves of elephant bush contrast with the red-toned stems. A variegated from is available with white edged leaves. Planting the two varieties together can make for a interesting display. Because of its height, elephant bush can be used as a background plant with lower growing succulents.
In its native habitat, the elephant bush blooms in the spring. It rarely blooms when grown in other parts of the world because it needs a dry winter to encourage bloom.
Elephant bush is native to South Africa. It is hardy to 30 degrees F and can survive outdoors in any exposure. It is growing nicely against a wall outside my door in the ground where it gets little sun. It is over three feet tall and has spread in width. It can also take full sun without burning. When mature it can reach over ten feet tall.
This versatile plant can grow in containers outdoors in cold climates where it can be brought indoors during chilly weather. Fertilizer should only be used during the growing season. Outdoors it does not seem to need fertilizer.
Indoors the elephant bush should be near a south or west facing window. A fast draining soil is important to avoid root rot. New plants can be started with cuttings. Be sure to let them callous (dry off at the cut end) before putting them in potting mix. Letting succulents callous before rooting reduces the chances of the plant becoming infected at the cut end.
Elephant bush can be used for bonsai. As the plant gets larger it still maintains small leaves. To us the plant for bonsai, keep it in a small container and prune it regularly. The main stem will increase in diameter while you maintain the height.