Elephant Bush 101: Origins, Care, and Uses

Written by Nikita Ross
Updated: August 30, 2023
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Succulents are known for their aesthetic appeal and easy-to-care-for nature, and the elephant bush is no exception. 

This ornamental succulent is a favorite for bonsai work and interior decor. In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know about the elephant bush and how to care for it.

Let’s dig in!

Origins of the Elephant Bush Plant

The elephant bush, scientifically known as Portulacaria afra is native to South Africa. This succulent plant is also known as a purslane tree, spekboom, or dwarf jade. 

Oxford botanist Johann Jacob Dillenius first recorded the existence of the elephant bush in the mid-1700s. Scientists continue to study Portulacaria afra for its carbon sequestration, or in layperson’s terms, a carbon sponge. Scientists believe this plant is incredibly efficient at absorbing carbon and processing it into oxygen, potentially benefiting climate change regulation.

Portulacaria afra is also being studied as a sustainable food source and is consumed by both people and animals in its local environment. However, experts recommend against eating it until more is known.

Elephant Bush Characteristics

Portulacaria afra

is a woody succulent with long stems.

©Gingertomcat/Shutterstock.com

Portulacaria afra is a shrub-like succulent with rich, brown-red woody stems. Its ovaline leaves are plump in nature and boast a vibrant green shade. Some cultivars have variegated leaves or boast alternate colors. 

This tree-like succulent will grow up to four feet tall in ideal conditions, but will cascade when placed in a pot. Portulacaria afra rarely flowers in indoor environments. When it does, it produces pink, stellate blossoms.

Common Elephant Bush Varieties

There are several varieties and cultivars of elephant bush with varying physical features. Some popular elephant bush varieties include:

  • Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’ – this variety has pale green leaves with white markings.
  • Portulacaria afra ‘Minima’ – also known as “elephant mat,” this variation only grows to a maximum of 12 inches and has small, pearl-like green leaves.
  • Portulacaria afra ‘Aurea’ – also known as the “golden elephant bush,” this variation has yellow leaves.
  • Portulacaria afra ‘Medio-picta’ – also known as the “rainbow bush,” this variation has pinkish-red stems and pale green leaves with white and cream markings. Some leaves are completely white.
  • Portulacaria afra ‘Cork Bark’ – also known as “elephant food,” this variety has a thick, cork-like bark that’s more reminiscent of a tree trunk.

Elephant Bush Benefits and Uses

dwarf jade bonsai tree getting pruned

Bonsai enthusiast love

Portulacaria afra

cultivars for their art.

©Mlle Sonyah/Shutterstock.com

Elephant bush succulents are typically used for ornamental purposes. They’re a popular alternative to jade in feng shui. 

Portulacaria afra cultivars are pliable and low-maintenance, making them ideal for entry-level bonsai projects. Portulacaria afra ‘Cork Bark’ is particularly popular for its realistic-looking trunk.

How to Grow the Elephant Bush

While it is possible to grow Portulacaria afra from seed, it’s not favorable. Instead, take a cutting from a healthy parent plant; the elephant bush is easy to propagate and takes well.

Elephant bush succulents will grow outdoors in USDA zones 9-11 or in any climate as an indoor plant.

1. Cutting Selection

Choose a stem with plenty of flexion and full, healthy leaves. Choose an established stem (rather than a newer sprig) and cut with clean, sharp scissors under a node. Avoid cutting the node, leaving space to promote rooting.

2. Soil Selection

Choose a well-draining succulent soil with ample drainage, or mix your own with potting soil, perlite, and organic matter. 

Like most desert plants, this succulent is prone to root rot. Ensure the pot is unglazed or has sufficient drainage holes at the bottom.

3. Planting Method

Let your cutting rest in indirect sunlight for a few days to develop a callous. Then, dip the cutting in some rooting hormone and plant it in the soil. 

Place the pot near a window for indirect sunlight. Elephant bush plants require indirect sunlight throughout their lives to avoid scorched leaves. Place your elephant bush away from vents or heaters.

4. Watering

Moisten the soil lightly after planting your cutting, and spritz regularly during the first few weeks. Once the elephant plant roots, water every two to three weeks when the soil is completely dry.

This plant will tell you when it’s thirsty. If the leaves are looking withered and dry, it’s time for a drink.

5. Care and Maintenance

Prune your Portulacaria afra regularly to maintain the shape you want. Otherwise, let it cascade and spread for a wild, untouched look.

Watch out for these common pests:

  • Mealybugs
  • Spider mites
  • Whitefly
  • Fungus gnats

Fertilize this succulent at the start and end of each growing season—once in the spring and once in the fall. Repot every two years to replenish the soil nutrients. 

Is the Elephant Bush Plant Safe for Pets?

Elephant bush succulents are safe and non-toxic, making them ideal for homes with pets and kids. However, it’s still wise to put the plant up and out of reach.

How Fast Does the Elephant Bush Grow?

The elephant bush is considered a slow grower, but will become unruly once it’s established.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Gene and Muyu/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Nikita Ross is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering plants, gardening, and yard care. Nikita has been writing for over seven years and holds a Marketing diploma from NSCC, which she earned in 2010. A resident of Canada, Nikita enjoys reading in her library, epic beach naps, and waiting for her Coffea arabica plant to produce coffee beans (no luck yet).

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