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Portulacaria afra: Uses, Photos and Varieties

Native to South Africa, elephant's food thrives outdoors in warm, sunny climates such as CA, Arizona, Florida and Hawaii

About Portulacaria afra

Portulacaria afra (elephant's food, elephant bush) thrives in warm, sunny climates. Unlike many other South African succulents, Portulacaria afra is fine with high humidity and rainfall (it grows well in Florida and Hawaii) as well as desert sun and heat. It's frost-tender, but unless severely damaged, will bounce back. Give the same care as other soft-leaved succulents as explained in my books and this site's Succulent Care Basics page.

Portulacaria vs Jade

Pot on left: Portulacaria afra 'Minima' and 'Variegata'; on right, two cultivars of Crassula ovata (golden jade and tricolor jade)

In its native habitat, Portulacaria afra provides 80 percent of the diet of elephants. The resulting broken, fallen branches root readily. Although sometimes confused with jade (Crassula ovata), the two plants are quite different. Stems of portulacaria branch every which way, are red in color, and are tough and wiry. You'll need clippers to take portulacaria cuttings, but you can snap jade stems with your fingers.

Pot with Portulacaria afra 'Minima' design by Michael Buckner

Portulacaria afra 'Minima' and Echeveria nodulosa. Design by Michael Buckner

Design tip: For striking combos, repeat the green-and-red of portulacaria in pots and adjacent plants.

Pests and problems: Nothing significant.

Portulacaria afra in bloom

Portulacaria afra in bloom. Jade is at far right.

Flowers: If kept dry and stressed, plants produce sprays of tiny purple flowers summer into fall.

Bonsai portulacaria by Rudy Lime

Bonsai portulacaria by Rudy Lime

Bonsai: Jade and portulacaria make good bonsai, but the latter is much easier to bend and train. Create gnarled stems by scoring with a knife.

Fire and portulacaria

From my "Do Succulents Catch Fire?" video: Portulacaria cooked but didn't catch fire.

Firebreak: The species is used in South Africa and SoCA in fire-prone areas, planted as a perimeter hedge.

Salad with portulacaria afra

My spinach-and-tomato salad topped with feta cheese and ground pepper, dressed with balsamic vinegar and garnished with leaves of Portulacaria afra 'Minima'.

Edible: Portulacaria leaves are high in Vitamin-C, have a juicy crunch and make a nice salad garnish. They do taste sour. Eat green leaves only; those that are variegated are bitter. Try it and let me know what you think. Share your own recipe on the YouTube video! Be sure to use pesticide-free plants.

Potulacaria afra at Desert Theater Nursery

A 15-year-old stand of Portulacaria afra at Desert Theater Nursery covers about 200 square feet. It consists of multiple, overlapping plants.

Environmental benefits: Similar to a rainforest, 2-1/2 acres of Portulacaria afra will mop up 4.2 tons of carbon a year. (Excess carbon is responsible for global warming and other climate changes.)

All portulacaria varieties are suitable Succulents for Coastal Southern California Gardens.

Varieties

Nurseries sometimes label portulacarias "miniature jade," but let's not encourage that. Btw, in its native South Africa, it's commonly called "spekboom."

  • Portulacaria afra grows 6 to 8 feet tall and spreads indefinitely. Use it as a backdrop plant, and/or prune into a hedge.
  • Portulacaria afra 'Variegata' (tricolor or rainbow elephant bush) first appeared as a sport (variant growth) of Portulacaria afra. It has cream-and-green leaves and pendant, trailing stems; and forms low, shrubby mounds that spread several feet tall and wide. Excellent for slopes, terraces, tall pots and hanging baskets.
  • Portulacaria afra 'Minima' ('Prostrata', 'Decumbent', "low form" or "elephant mat"). First appeared as a sport of 'Variegata' and is smaller overall, with dainty green leaves.
  • Portulacaria afra 'Aurea' is the same as 'Minima', but leaves are yellow or chartreuse.
  • Portulacaria afra macrophylla (large-leaf elephant food) is less common. Waterwise Botanicals nursery gave it an elephant's mouthful of a name: "Portulacaria afra macrophylla gigantea 'Bull-ephant Bush'."
  • Uncommon varieties include Portulacaria afra 'Skyscraper' which is narrow and upright; Portulacaria afra 'Cork Bark' with rough stems; and Portulacaria afra 'Medio-picta', a cream-pink-and-green variegate of 'Minima'.

Resources

Online Nurseries

Serra Gardens

Mountain Crest Gardens

Altman Plants

Amazon

Southern CA

Special thanks to Waterwise Botanicals Nursery for providing many of the plants shown on this page and in the video.

Videos

Find out how to select, use and grow these easy-care succulents from South Africa. See them in gardens large and small, and discover their surprising benefits and attributes.

Portulacaria afra video

Portulacaria afra video

Portulacaria leaves are high in Vitamin-C and have a sour, juicy crunch. I make a spinach-and-tomato salad with Portulacaria afra 'Minima'. Try it and tell me what you think!

Elephant's Food Salad video

Elephant's Food Salad video

Elephant's Food (Portulacaria afra), an Easy-Care Succulent (3:50) Filmed during Debra's presentation at the 2013 Succulent Celebration

Do Succulents Catch Fire? (5:52) I compare the combustibility of six types of succulents (jade, aloe, aeonium, firesticks, elephant’s food and paddle cactus). A must-see for residents of wildfire-prone regions.

 

Articles

Debra's Top Firewise Succulents
These readily available plants combine to make beautiful, low-water landscapes. They're quite common and start easily from cuttings
This colorful succulent garden is a three-dimensional showcase of succulents superbly suited to mild, frost-free regions.

My Books

Designing with Succulents (2nd ed) pp. 226-227; Succulents Simplified, p. 241; and Succulent Container Gardens, p. 207

Portulacaria afra photo gallery

I've identified and labeled photos for you according to genus and species, and common name if available. If you think any info here or elsewhere on my site is incorrect, kindly let me know. — Debra Lee Baldwin

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