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Elephant bush

Portulacaria afra

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Belonging to the Portulacaria genus, Elephant bush has a botanical name of Portulacaria afra.

The porkbush or spekboom is an attractive, evergreen succulent shrub or small tree that can reach 2 – 5 m in height, although usually around 1.5 – 2m in a garden situation. It has has small, round, succulent leaves and red stems. Small, star-shaped, pink flowers are borne en masse from late winter to spring. It is drought-tolerant and fire-resistant.

It is found in warm situations on rocky slopes and dry river valleys. It occurs on the eastern areas of the South Africa, from the Eastern Cape northwards into KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, Mpumalanga and the Northern Province in rocky areas of dry succulent karoo scrub, thicket and bushveld.

The leaves of the porkbush can be eaten and have a sour or tart flavour2. It is heavily browsed by game and domestic stock and highly favoured by tortoises2. The porkbush has also been indicated as a soil binder for preventing soil erosion2.

It is also used as a rootstock for grafting the closely related but more difficult to grow Ceraria namaquensis (Namaqua porkbush) which cannot tolerate water around its roots as it comes from very dry areas2.

The porkbush can be used as a screen or even a clipped hedge. It also makes a handsome and hardy Bonsai (see here for photo). Various different forms are found in cultivation, most of which originate from the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden in South Africa.2 These forms include a prostrate low growing ground cover, ‘Prostrata’; a shrubby form with small round leaves which turn an attractive yellow in full sun, ‘Aurea’ and ‘_Foliis variegatus’_ – a slow growing variegated form which is well suited to pot culture2. Another variegated form known as ‘Medio-picta’ has green leaves with whitish markings spreading from the centre. A large-leaved form known as ‘Limpopo’ has much larger, more ovate leaves that can measure up to 20 – 30mm long and 15 – 20mm wide. This form represents the northern populations which extend into the northern provinces of South Africa and Mozambique2.

It is a flowering edible succulent / ornamental and is treated mainly as an evergreen, so it retains its leaves throughout the year.

Elephant bush normally grows to a bushy habit with a max height of 14.86 feet (that's 4.57 metres metric). This plant tends to bloom in late winter.

South Africa is believed to be where Elephant bush originates from.

Being a fairly low maintenance plant, Elephant bush is normally quite easy to grow provided a minimum level of care is given throughout the year. It will be helpful to note the correct soil, sun and water needs of this plant to ensure that this plant thrives.

This plant info is provided by the myfolia gardener's wiki. All details about Elephant bush have been kindly provided by our members.

How to grow Elephant bush

  • Full Sun

    OR
  • Partial Sun

  • Low

Propagation is by cuttings. Take a 4 to 6 inch cutting with a clean sterilized razor blade. Remove the bottom leaves, leaving a 2 to 4 section of the stem bare. Dip the bottom 2 inches of your Portulacaria afra in rooting compound. Leave it to heal in a well ventilated area and form a callous for a few days to a week. Plant your Portulacaria Afra in four parts sand or perlite with one part potting soil. The container should be a 4 inch pot and the soil should be firmed down to level the surface.1

Good for xeriscaping, containers, bonsai. Prefer porous soil. Water when soil is dry to touch, but be careful not to overwater in winter especially. Prefer full sun/bright light. Reportedly blooms close to the equator.

Prefers dry soil, but can survive even well-watered flower beds2.

Position in a full sun / partial sun location and remember to apply water fairly sparingly. Use Zone 9 - Zone 11 as your guideline for the appropriate climate for this plant. Planting Elephant bush in sandy soil with a ph of between 5.6 and 6.5 is ideal for as it does best in weakly acidic soil. Keep in mind when planting that Elephant bush is thought of as half hardy, so although it can survive a small mild cold snap, it is wise to ensure that this plant is protected from frost damage.

See our list of companion Plants for Elephant bush to see which plants you should plant in close proximity to encourage growth.

Growing Elephant bush from seed

Transplanting Elephant bush

Spekboom or porkbush is usually propagated from cuttings as the seed is not often available. Cuttings or truncheons strike root easily and can even be planted directly into the ground where they are to be grown. Alternatively cuttings can be taken in the normal fashion and allowed to dry out for a day or two in a cool dry place and then planted in washed river sand and kept in a shady position until they are rooted and ready to be planted out. Cuttings root quickly and can usually be planted out after four to six weeks.

As Elephant bush is half hardy, ensure temperatures are mild enough to plant out - wait until after your last frost date to be on the safe side.

How long does Elephant bush take to grow?

These estimates for how long Elephant bush takes to sprout, grow and harvest are from real observations from real gardeners, right around the world.

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Elephant bush Etymology

The name Portulacaria is composed of Portulaca + aria suggesting a similarity to that genus. The word afra refers to the fact that the plant occurs in Africa.

One of the common names, “elephant food” or “elephant bush” refers to the fact that elephants in the Addo National park (Eastern Cape, South Africa) consume the plant’s leaves as part of their regular diet. They knock off small branches when they do, and those root in the ground to form new plants.

Elephant bush Folklore & Trivia

It has been shown to be effective in carbon sequestration (binding atmospheric carbon which is responsible for climate change), in semi-arid landscapes and thicket vegetation it is also being used for restoration purposes2.

In traditional African medicine, it is used to increase breast milk by lactating mothers2. The leaves are used to quench thirst, sucking a leaf is used to treat exhaustion, dehydration and heat stroke2. Crushed leaves can be rubbed on blisters and corns on the feet to provide relief2. The leaves are chewed as a treatment for sore throat and mouth infections while the astringent juice is used for soothing ailments of the skin such as pimples, rashes and insect stings2. The juice is also used as an antiseptic and as a treatment for sunburn2. It is also recorded that a small sprig of porkbush steamed with a tomato bredie (a traditional Cape Malay stew) imparts a delicious flavour2. The honey made from the flowers of porkbush is said to be " unsurpassable in flavour and texture" by one reference3.

Other names for Elephant bush

Elephant food, Elephant plant, Miniature jade plant, Spekboom, Small leaf jadeporkbush, intelezi (zulu), Isidondwane (zulu), Isambilane (zulu), Indibili (zulu), Isicococo (zulu); igqwanitsha (xhoza), Dwarf Jade Plant

Misspellings: Portulacaria afre

Footnotes

1 How to propagate Portulacaria afra

2 Portulacaria afra on PlantzAfrica

3 :Roberts. M. 1990. Indigenous healing plants. Southern Book Publishers, Halfway House.

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