Elephant Bush – Portulacaria afra (Plant Profile)

by | Botany

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There’s a beautiful succulent that is gaining popularity with houseplant enthusiasts. You might have heard of it, with its cute, rounded leaves and a beautiful stem that pops with color.

Are you ready to learn about this plant with HerbSpeak’s plant profile? Read on to discover more about the succulent and its growing habits.

Portulacaria afra – Description

The elephant bush, or Portulacaria afra, is native to South Africa from the Little Karoo of the Western Cape, into the thickets of the Eastern Cape.

It is a member of the Didiereaceae family, which is a family of flowering plants commonly found in Africa and Madagascar only. This family of plants are known as succulents and thrive in sub-arid to arid environments, typically growing in thickets.

The succulent has small leaves and, unless cultivated otherwise, have red stems and round green leaves. They have earned a popular reputation as an ornamental plant that is easy to care for.

Portulacaria afra Common Names

The succulent has plenty of common names, but there tends to be little confusion between them and common names of other plants because of how unique it is in appearance. There is one exception, however, which we will cover below.

It got the common name “Elephant Bush” because of its popularity with grazing elephants in Africa. The woody stems are not swallowed, but the fleshy round leaves and early spring flower buds contain a lot of nutrients for the creatures. Whole branches are easily stripped in one feeding sessions, making up much of the elephant’s diet, but the plant regenerates quickly, regrowing leaves in as little as two weeks.

Others believe that the plant resembles a diminutive jade plant, as it has a similar leaf shape to forming Crassula ovata leaves. There are several differences between these plants, most notably, less of a waxy appearance on the leaves. This gave it a common name of “dwarf jade” though this is not as widely used as elephant bush.

The native South African name for the plant is “Spekboom.” It is found in “Spekboomvelds,” which are thickets full of the plant. This name translates into “bacon tree” which has given rise to a new nickname in some communities of “porkbush.”

Uses of Portulacaria afra

Portulacaria afra is used in a variety of applications adding to its popularity and versatility. (1) The leaves are considered edible for humans and livestock alike and are pleasant in taste.

Native communities have widely used the plants for medicinal benefit:

  • Using the juiced leaves as an antiseptic, bug bite relief, and skincare for blemishes, sunburns, and rashes.
  • Chewing the leaves to release juices is said to be able to treat sore throats and infections of the mouth.
  • Crushed leaves as a poultice for blister relief.
  • Some communities use the leaves to help promote lactation in breastfeeding mothers.
The medicinal properties of plant remedies have been attributed to the presence of secondary plant metabolites including polyphenols, steroids, alkaloids, terpenoids, and glycosides
Oyinlola O. Olaokun

Other uses of the plant include use as a famine food and as a way to get quick water content to relieve thirst, exhaustion, and heatstroke. Some communities dry the stems and to use in roof thatching.

Portulacaria afra also plays an important ecological role, providing food for grazing animals such as elephants, rhinoceros, and livestock.

The flowers, which bloom in spring and summer from September to March, are rich in nectar which provides food for insects, which in turn brings insectivorous birds to the area to feast.

Edibility and Toxicity of Portulacaria afra

The Portulacaria afra plant has long been known as a safe grazing plant for livestock, but humans can eat it as well.

It is said to have a pleasant flavor, however, the flavor changes throughout the day. Leaves harvested during the day have an acidic flavor which tapers off as it becomes evening. It is particularly high in vitamin C, making it a great addition to salads.

The leaves of Portulacaria are often used in salads and stews, adding a fresh and delicious flavor to each dish.

These plants are considered non-toxic, even to pets, making them a popular ornamental or houseplant choice for animal lovers.

How to Identify Portulacaria afra

There are many varieties of Portulacaria afra, but the most common variety has a woody stem and bright, rounded green leaves. Some leaves may have a slight heart-shape to them, while others will remain rounded.

The stems will often develop a brown or reddish coloration to them, especially as a young plant. New growth tends to trail or droop under its own weight.

Quick Identification Checklist:

  • Leaves: Depending on the variety, the leaves are bright green and may show some yellowing in undernourished leaves.
  • Stem: Stems vary in color depending on the variety, but typically show a reddish or purple coloration before growing a woody exterior in maturity.
  • New Growth: New growth tends to droop under its own weight or trail.

Top Portulacaria afra Lookalike: Jade Plant, or Crassula ovata

Portulacaria is commonly mistaken for the jade plant (Crassula ovata) and many stores tend to mislabel the plants.

The key differences between the elephant bush and jade plants are the leaves and growth habits.

  1. Jade leaves are often waxy in appearance, thick to the touch, and elongated or oval-shaped. When exposed to too much sunlight, Jade leaves may have a red trim along the edges of the leaves and are moderately spaced. Portulacaria, on the other hand, has soft, rounded leaves with a thin or malleable structure. These leaves remain the same color and are closer together.
  2. Jade plants will often grow upright and hold their own weight capably with thick stems, while Portulacaria will often droop or trail until the new growth grows a more rigid outer layer of the stems. With thinner stems, heavier branches may break off, forming new plants.

How to Care for Elephant Bush

It is easy to care for an Elephant Bush plant whether you are growing it outdoors in your garden or indoors as a houseplant. It is a succulent which requires well-draining soil and no exposure to frost. It does well in arid environments and is considered one of the most low-effort houseplants available. For more in-depth information on how to care for your plant, visit the article on Elephant Bush Care.

Is Elephant Bush an Invasive Species?

No, Portulacaria is not an invasive species, and it plays a critical role in the ecosystem, providing a reliable food source for many different animals, even indirectly. (2) The plant is a keystone species, keeping many different facets of the arid environment functioning correctly.

… spekboom is a highly important nurse plant for many thicket species. Thus, arid thicket expansion is largely determined by the rate of spekboom colonisation.
R. Duker

How Fast Does Portulacaria afra Grow?

New stem cuttings will root within 4-6 weeks from propagating so long as they are in the right conditions for growth. In established plants, the leaves can be stripped from the plant during grazing and re-grow with vibrant lushness in as little as two weeks.

Propagation of Elephant Bush Succulents

You can propagate the plant through stem cuttings between 2 and 4 inches long. Leaves should be removed from the bottom few inches of the stem. These cuttings do best when taken in spring or summer when the plant is actively growing. Within a few weeks, the cuttings will have rooted and be ready for transplanting.

Types of Portulacaria afra

There are several types of Portulacaria that are widely kept as ornamental plants or houseplants. Below is a list of the most popular types of elephant bush.

If you notice a type that has not been included here, mention it in the comments and you’ll see an update here!

  1. Common Portulacaria afra

This is by far the most popular type of elephant bush, known for its vibrant green leaves and woody stem. When new, the stems are light green, then turn to a reddish brown, then brown as the plant produces a new and more protective outer layer.

All rights reserved – GlassHouseWorks Source

  1. Mammoth Elephant Bush “Macrophylla”

This elephant bush has leaves that are nearly twice the normal size, making it deserving of the mammoth nickname. The stems are similar in growth habit and coloration as the normal Portulacaria plant.

  1. Portulacaria afra minima “Lillput”

This bush is very tiny in its overall size, not just leaf size. The leaves are much shinier than normal and can grow in a slightly more oval shape, causing many people to mistake it for a jade. The main way to differentiate the two here are in their growth habits.

All rights reserved – Angiie Source

  1. Portulacaria afra Rainbow “Manny”

The rainbow “Manny” elephant bush is primarily known for its wavy leaf shape. Some leaves may also appear to have white stripes from the petiole to the outer leaf edge. These often show more green and yellow-white colorations than reds and purples.

  1. Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’

The variegated elephant bush is known for having more creams, whites, and greens striped across its leaves, rather than remaining one color. If you are looking for a houseplant that doubles as a good salad ingredient, however, beware; it is said that variegated leaves are bitter compared to the normal leaves.

References
  1. Oyinlola O. Olaokun, Phytochemical Screening, Antioxidant, Anti-Inflammatory, and Glucose Utilization Activities of Three South African Plants Used Traditionally to Treat Diseases, https://biolmedonline.com/Articles/Vol9_5_2017/BLM-242_Phytochemical-screening-antioxidant-anti-inflammatory-and-glucose-utilization-activities-of-three-South-African-plants-.pdf
  2. Duker, Frost, Portulacaria afra Jacq. And the Boundary Between the Albany Subtropical Thicket and Nama-Karoo Biomes, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0254629915002744

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About Destynnie K. Berard
I am a lifelong naturalist who believes a good sense of humor is essential to staying happy. ★ After traveling for years, I settled in New England, falling in love with the diverse landscape the Northeast has to offer, and began pursuing conservation in earnest. ★ My career background is in enterprise marketing and communications, which provides me with a unique perspective of ecological relationships.

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