Elephant bush is a great beginner succulent. Not only is it a keystone species in its native habitat, but it is a beautiful way to add a little green to your daily routine. This plant is also called Spekboom in its native region of South Africa, which translates literally to “bacon tree.”
The plant is a very popular grazing shrub for rhinoceros, elephants, and other livestock. While it does not often flower in less-than-ideal conditions, it’s still quite a popular display for houseplant enthusiasts and outdoor gardeners alike.
In this article, HerbSpeak will cover how to care for your new elephant bush plant, as well as address several common care questions.
Elephant Bush Basics
Botanical Name: Portulacaria afra
Botanical Family: Didiereaceae
Life Cycle: Perennial
Common Lookalikes: Jade plant, Crassula ovata
Native Habitat: Arid and sub-arid regions of South Africa.
Growth Pattern: Upright, bushy stems which may trail or droop around areas of new growth.
Foliage Type: Malleable, rounded or gently heart-shaped leaves. Elephant bush stems have a woody appearance in maturity; new growth stems may be green then dark to purple, red, and brown before turning woody. Leaves may have yellow or white stripes on them if variegated.
Size: Container-bound plants typically grow no larger than 3 feet tall (1 m), though wild or outdoor planted bushes may grow anywhere from 6 to 20 (2-6 m) tall.
Elephant Bush Care Requirements
The elephant bush is considered an excellent beginner succulent because it can withstand drought easily. Given sufficient light and favorable temperatures, the elephant bush plant is ideal for the home, and may be planted outdoors in areas that do not receive any frost.
Light Requirements: Bright filtered light to full sun.
Native to arid regions, the elephant bush can tolerate areas of full sun, though it does best in bright filtered sunlight. For non-native regions, acclimation to full sun is required to prevent sunburning the leaves. The plant may also tolerate partial shade but will not thrive in these conditions.
Soil Requirements: Well-draining potting soil with no true pH preference.
Elephant bush plants can tolerate a somewhat wide range of pH levels in the soil, from moderately acidic (5.6) to slightly alkaline (7.8.) The ideal soil type for this plant should be porous and well-draining. Rocky, sandy soils do best, but cactus soil mixes or potting soil cut in half with vermiculite will do well for indoor plants.
Potting Requirements: 2” wider than root ball with adequate drainage holes.
No plant enjoys being rootbound, so make sure to leave plenty of room for the roots to grow in over the year. Transplanting is best done when it is actively growing throughout the warmer months. Unglazed pots are best to help get rid of excess moisture buildup.
Tolerant Temperatures: Minimum 55ºF, Maximum 85ºF.
The ideal temperatures for this plant are anywhere between 70 and 85ºF. This plant is not frost tolerant and will not live if it drops below 40ºF. This plant tends to be sensitive to fluctuations in temperature as well, making it difficult to change their environment too drastically at once.
Tolerant Humidity: Low to Medium-Low
This plant does not require a lot of humidity to survive, and too much humidity can contribute to leaf drop. The more humidity the plant is exposed to, the less water it will need during regular watering sessions.
Basic Elephant Bush Care Routine
It is important to establish a regular care routine with any plants. Luckily, the elephant bush is fairly forgiving for new plant parents or those who can’t take the time out of the day to care for their plants too frequently. Still, some care is required for the elephant bush plant, and it’s important to know what your plant needs; establishing a routine can help.
Watering Elephant Bush:
Overwatering is a huge problem with any succulents and can cause leaf drop and root rot if the soil stays too consistently moist.
The elephant bush should be watered more frequently during the warmer summer months. Still, this frequent level of watering should only be done when the soil is completely dry.
When watering, you should allow the soil to absorb the water, watering until the drainage holes begin to drain. Make sure that any drip trays are drained as well, as the elephant bush does not do well with “wet feet.”
How Often to Fertilize Elephant Bush:
Fertilizing can be done with water-soluble fertilizer in the growing season only. It is important to note that any indoor fertilizer should be done at half-strength, or in a highly diluted form, as the elephant bush does not require a lot of fertilization to remain healthy.
How Often to Prune Elephant Bush:
It is not necessary to prune the elephant bush, though it will grow into a disorderly thicket if left unattended. Pruning should be done during the warmer months when the plant is growing. Branches that are particularly heavy may break off to form new plants on the ground.
Growing Portulacaria Elephant Bush Houseplants
These plants make delightful houseplants, adding a pop of emerald green and deep red stems to any home corner. As a succulent, it is great to add to mixed baskets of other succulents or display on its own.
Indoor Lighting: How Much Sun Does an Elephant Bush Need?
Elephant bush requires bright, filtered light indoors. Never give it direct full sun unless it has been properly acclimated to receive that level of light.
How Often Should You Water an Elephant Bush?
You should water your elephant bush plant whenever it starts to get dry; every week or two depending on your climate. The soil should be well draining so that any moisture leftover from watering does not harm the roots.
How to Get Elephant Bushes to Bloom
Spekboom flowers are rare in cultivation and can take several years to appear on the plant, especially when grown indooors. (1)
(the) plants produce a myriad of tiny, inconspicuous pink or white flowers in late spring or early summer in its native habitat
Still, plants can be encouraged to bloom by providing the plant with as close conditions as its native habitat as possible. This is easier in arid environments but may still prove difficult.
Outdoor Gardening Care for Elephant Bush
Planting the bush outdoors is not for the faint of heart, but if you live in a semi-arid environment that sees little to no frost, you can get away with a partial or full outdoor planting.
Outdoor Sunlight Requirements
Once the plant has been acclimated to full sun slowly, it does well in brightly lit, partial to full sun outdoors. Try planting it anywhere in the garden that receives 6 hours or more of sunlight. Too much sun, or a sign of not being acclimated to the level of sun is burning, yellowing, and crisping of the leaves.
The elephant bush is not known for its frost tolerance, and even a small amount of frost may damage the plant. Typically, its tolerant temperature sits at 55°F on the low end. Areas that do not see frost or a cold winter may be able to plant the bush outdoors year-round.
Propagating Elephant Bush Succulents
The elephant bush is best cultivated from stem cuttings that are taken during the active growing season, when it will root readily in well-draining soil and exposed to warm, arid environmental conditions. (2)
if you’ve started jade plant before, you’ll have no trouble propagating elephant bush.
Propagation of the elephant bush is similar to that of the Jade plant (Crassula ovata) where it is best to snip the stem so it is about 4 inches long with a sharp, sanitized blade and remove the leaves from the bottom half.
Good air circulation and warm temperatures with plenty of bright filtered light is key to successful propagation.
Common Problems with Portulacaria afra
The elephant bush has a few common problems that houseplant growers and gardeners come across when taking care of the plant.
These problems are addressed below, along with their potential solution. Of course, these solutions may vary depending on the particular circumstances of the problem, but they are usually a safe bet to start narrowing down what the plant is asking for.
Usually, if your Portulacaria plant is starting to drop its leaves, then it is likely getting too much water. As a succulent, this bush needs very little water compared to other common houseplants. Dropped leaves may appear normal, or they can be yellow or white tinged in color.
It might not be a problem with your watering cycle, however. There are other ways your plant could be getting overwatered, whether it’s because of the roots staying too moist, or the ambient humidity staying too high.
If the ambient humidity is too high for the plant, try moving your plant to another room that receives more sunlight or enough airflow to take humidity out of the room. Likewise, avoid having a humidifier in the room. Failing that, purchasing a dehumidifier for especially humid areas will benefit the plant.
If the humidity is at a normal level inside the home, then consider whether your potting mix is correct for your plant. The soil should be well-draining and able to dry evenly. Too much moisture around the roots can cause the plant to start dropping leaves as well.
Leaves Turning Yellow
If your leaves are turning yellow, then there are three possible reasons for this occurrence:
- There is too much direct sunlight
If the leaves are burned or getting too much sun without being acclimated to full sun first, they can turn a yellow or bright, lime green color. Often, this results in the leaves falling off or crisping up unless the plant is moved to a location with less direct – but still bright – sunlight.
- The lighting conditions recently changed
Especially if you grow your elephant bush outside and move it in for the colder winter months, the plant may need to take some time adjusting. Try to slowly change the growing conditions, giving it as much time between changes in light level as possible without letting it get below its tolerant temperatures.
- Too much water
In addition to losing leaves, too much water can cause a sickly yellow appearance in dropped leaves.
Wrinkled leaves are common with underwatering and might be seen in combination with the leaves wilting or dropping from the plant.
If the plant is too dry, it can also start to lose its leaves, which is an inverse problem to overwatering with inverse solutions, though it is less common than overwatering.
If, when watering the plant, you notice that water goes right through the pot then you may need to change the potting mixture to accommodate more moisture retention. A cactus soil mix is typically recommended.
Pests and Diseases
Elephant bush plants are prone to a few different types of pests including white flies, scale moths, spider mites, fungus gnat larvae and mealybugs.
While topical or leaf-based diseases will not typically affect the plant, they are prone to fungal diseases within the soil that is often caused by overwatering. Diseases can be prevented by maintaining proper watering with the correct soil medium for the plant, as well as keeping pests controlled.