Portulacaria Afra ‘Elephant Bush’ Care & Propagation

Updated: Sep 26

Portulacaria Afra is also widely known as the Elephant’s Bush or the Jade plant and is on of the most widespread succulents.


Distribution


Portulacaria Afra is endemic to South Africa and Eswatini. It usually grows in slopy areas and amongst rocky outcrops.


Scientific Classification


Kingdom: Plantae

Clade: Tracheophytes

Clade: Angiosperms

Clade: Eudicots

Order: Caryophyllales

Family: Didiereaceae

Genus: Portulacaria

Species: P. afra



Description


Portulacaria Afra is a bush like plant that can grow to over 2m in ideal conditions. This succulent branches out from the main stem as well as from the branches.


Portulacaria Afra 'Elephant Bush'
Portulacaria Afra 'Elephant Bush'

The leaves are small, round and green. The surface is waxy and shiny. When new leaves appear, the colour is a lighter green providing a pretty contrast to the dark green older leaves.



Two variegated versions of the Elephant bush exist. Variegated Portulacaria afra and reverse variegated Portulacaria afra.


The stem of Portulacaria Afra is brown and soft. Old and mature plants are likely to have a thick main stem.


When grown in good soil this succulent can reach 2-4m/ 8-15ft height and 1m in width. Better growing conditions, thicker the growth will be. If Portulacaria afra is grown in poor soil the leaves may not be as dense and the whole plant is unlikely to grow very tall.


A weeping form of Portulacaria afra also exists. This variety does not grow tall, but more like a groundcover with branches arched over in an upturned U shape.


Portulacaria Afra flowers in cute pink flowers growing from the top of the stems. The flowers attract a variety of small insects and pollinators.


Position & Care


Portulacaria Afra is a tough plant and will be able to grow in challenging conditions, though this succulent is not frost tolerant. A mild frost is unlikely to kill mature plants, but it can inflict burns.


In cold climates with regular frost and snow in winter, Portulacaria afra should not be grown in the ground. Planted in pots, these succulents can be moved indoors once freezing temperatures hit. Portulacaria afra will not mind temperatures down to 1C/33F.



In warmer climates, pots and garden are both suitable to grow this plant. Although Portulacaria afra is tolerant of shade it will grow best in a sunny position.


In pots, succulent potting mix should be used for best results. Because Portulacaria Afra can grow quite big, it should be re-potted every year into a larger pot.


In the ground the Elephant Bush will grow virtually anywhere, even if the soil is poor. Having said that, better the quality of soil bigger and healthier the plant. A general-purpose potting mix can be mixed into poor soil to help newly planted plants establish better.


Portulacaria Afra is not too fussed about water and will survive heavy rains and overwatering as long as it’s planted in a pot with drainage or on sloping ground. This plant will be able to survive long periods without water as well.


Mulch can be used to suppress weeds and keep water from evaporating fast. Composted wood mulches are the best option.


Uses


Portulacaria afra has many uses in its native Southern Africa. It is commonly eaten raw or cooked in soups by both humans and other animals. Livestock is fed this plant in times of drought and wild animals such as elephants (hence the nickname elephant’s bush) and other large herbivores.


Native people also use Portulacaria afra as medicine for skin irritations.


As this plant hold water and is unlikely to burn, it makes a fantastic fireproof hedge in areas with wildfires.



In cultivation Portulacaria afra is used as an indoor and outdoor ornamental plant. Due to its versatility, hardiness and belief this plant is lucky, it is popular amongst many plant growers.


Portulacaria afra is a good specimen to use as a bonsai and is tolerant of restricted root space and pruning.


In the garden, this succulent can make a fabulous and easy to look after hedge. Portulacaria afra can be pruned to shape and will also grow quite tall which is great for privacy.


Propagation


Portulacaria afra can easily be propagated by cuttings, leaves and seeds. The most reliable and fastest method of propagation is cuttings.


Cuttings of Protulacaria afra are incredibly easy to propagate and should root within two weeks in the growing season. The cutting should have at least six leaves, though even smaller cuttings are likely to send roots. Large cuttings with multiple branches can be cut of as well.


Cuttings are best of started in potting mix, but they should root even if planted straight in the garden.



Leaf propagation may be a slightly difficult due to the leaves being a bit hard to separate. An entire leaf will need to be taken off without any part of it breaking. To see our leaf propagation guide, go here.


Seed can be propagated too, however, it is a lengthy process to go from seed to a decent size plant. To be honest I don’t think it’s worth it to propagate Portulacaria afra from seed as these succulents are easy to obtain anywhere in the world for very little money.


All propagation should be done in the growing season, which for this plant is spring-early autumn. Propagating in winter is not recommended, especially in climates with harsh winters.


Pests


Portulacaria afra is thankfully not too prone to pests, but it’s not unusual for mealybugs and aphids to attack.


Mealybugs target the roots most often and that is why I’d recommend to re-pot this succulent on a regular basis. Root mealybugs go largely unnoticed until the plant is out of the pot.


Leaves and stems can also be attacked by mealybugs. A white, cottony pouch is formed where mealybugs are feeding. They are incredibly hard to eliminate with pesticides as they get resistant. Squashing them is the best method.



Aphids come out in the warmer months, especially when wet and humid. They attack all the soft new growth that shoots out in the Spring. Aphids are easily killed by pyrethrum based sprays.


Caterpillars and slugs can also eat leaves of Portulacaria afra. For a full list of animals that like to eat succulent leaves, see this article.


Toxicity


Portulacaria Afra is not toxic to humans, dogs, cats, horses or other livestock. It is, however, not to be confused with another plant that is called the ‘jade plant’ as the other jade plant is poisonous.


The nickname jade plant is used for many succulents with round leaves which can be quite confusing. The original jade plant, Crassula ovata, is toxic to humans and animals and should never be consumed. The main difference is that Portulacaria Afra has very small leaves, only about 1-2 cm across whereas Crassula Ovata has much bigger leaves.


Poisonous Crassula Ovata
Poisonous Crassula Ovata

Where can I get it?


Portulacaria afra is very easy to come across and very widespread around most of the world. It is very likely someone you know already has this plant and will be able to gift a small cutting.


Otherwise, the Elephant bush can be purchased from nurseries, garden centres or online.


Our nursery Fern Farm Plants sells two variegated Portulacaria afra varieties.