ELEPHANT BUSH - PORTULACARIA AFRA
Top Tips & Info
- Care Difficulty - Moderate
- Provide a bright area with the possibility of morning sunlight. We'd recommend a windowsill or conservatory as a possible location for this species, as deep shade may result in soil mould and root rot.
- Fertilise every two or three months using either a 'Cactus' or 'Houseplant' labelled feed.
- Repot every two or three years during the spring, using a 'Cactus & Succulent' potting mix and the next sized pot with drainage holes.
- Keep an eye out for Mealybugs that can inhabit the cubbyholes of the stem and leaves.
Location & Light
Elephant Bushes like a relatively bright location that offers a few hours of off-peak sunlight. Exposure to the sun will not only reduce the risk of over-watering, but it'll also maintain the colourful variegations of its foliage. Due to its intolerance of low light, situations, where a newspaper can't be read without the use of artificial light, must be avoided at all costs.
If you've recently purchased a specimen, chances are it hasn't acclimatised to the potential direct sunlight you'll give it. If you're interested in placing yours in a brighter environment, gradually increase the light levels over the course of a few weeks to prevent the risk of environmental shock or sun-scorch.
In its natural habitat of southern Africa, Elephant Bushes must endure torrential downpours between prolonged dry spells to survive. Keeping this in mind, rehydrate only once the soil's entirety has thoroughly dried out, reducing this further in the autumn and winter. For some varieties, pouring cold water directly into the soil could cause yellowed halos around the leaf edges that cannot be undone. Store tap water overnight in a non-metal container to bunk up the overall temperature, or use rainwater for the best results. Under-watering symptoms include shrivelling leaves and stems, little to no growth, gradual decline; these issues are usually caused by too much light or heat, a much needed repot or possible forgetfulness. Over-watering symptoms include yellowing leaves, a collapsed stem, wilting and plant death. Never situate yours in a dark location; the combination of both too little light and too much soil moisture will slowly lead to root rot.
This is not a necessity; however, a quick hose down from time to time will hydrate the leaves and wash away dust or potential pests.
Fertilise every two months during the growing period and every three months in the autumn & winter to replicate its dormancy period. Although a 'Houseplant' fertiliser will still do the job, we'd recommend using a specific 'Cactus' labelled feed as it'll support the vital thirteen nutrients that this species will need to grow.
Common Issues with Elephant Bushes
Too much sunlight will lead to sun scorch, with typical signs including browning or crispy leaves, dry leaf-edges, sunken leaves or stunted growth. Although too little light will cause over-watering issues, excess sunlight will be a detriment to the plant as well. If yours has fallen short of this, reduce the amount of the sun considerably and always be mindful of environmental shock (when two locations offer too different growing conditions). Remove some of the affected leaves and increase waters slightly.
Alternatively, root rot is a common issue among specimens sat in too dark environments with prolonged soil moisture. Symptoms include rapidly yellowing leaves, mouldy soil, stunted growth and a rotten brown base. Take the plant out of the pot and inspect health below the compost line. If the roots sport a yellow tinge, you're good to go, but those that are brown and mushy must be addressed immediately.
Clean the leaves regularly. Although this isn't too much of an issue, a build-up of dust particles can clog up the plant's pores, causing lowered light capturing-efficiency. Rinse the topsides of the leaves down once a month to keep levels down and improve growing conditions.
Never allow temperatures to dip below 10ºC (50ºF) as irreversible damage will occur in the likes of yellow foliage and weakened health. When this happens, remove the severely affected areas and immediately improve growing conditions - never cut through softened yellow or brown growth. As rehabilitation can take several months because of its slow-growing nature, be sure to provide a stable location with better growing conditions to speed this process.
Failed leaf-cuttings could be the product of several different reasons. As Elephant Bushes are best propagated during the spring when the plant is most active, those taken in the dormant months will root much slower, and could even die in the meantime. Study its environment - is there enough light to read a newspaper? If not, improve the growing conditions by increasing the amount of indirect sunlight it receives. Never situate the cuttings in direct sunlight as this will result in severe dehydration and most likely death. The overall size will play a big part in its success, too. The total height must surpass at least 8cm, with no visible signs of damage or cuts. Smaller specimens won't root appropriately due to the lower amounts of stored energy situated in the stem. If the leaves are propagated via hydroponics, replace the water weekly to prevent the risk of bacteria thriving within the container. Yellow or brown sections that are slowly rotting away must also be removed, as nasty pathogens will be released into the water, spreading onto unaffected specimens. Those directly placed in cold water will show signs of distress, too. If you're interested in propagating via soil, be sure to use a well-draining potting mix with a right amount of sand and grit. Those that are set too deeply or in excessive moist soil will begin to rot at the base, immediately reducing the chance of root development.
Portulacaria is a genus consisting over ten species with natural distributions in Southern Africa. Its name derives from Latin, with portula translating to 'door' that refers to the opening lid of its fruits. Caria means 'relating to', which is a reference to the similarity of the genus, Portulaca. The species' name, afra, is a specific epithet to the continent of Africa. Many animals, including ostriches and elephants, feast on the sour-tasting foliage for nutrition. The species' leaves are also classed as a local delicacy, being used in salads and soups.
10° - 26°C (50° - 78°F)
H1b (Hardiness Zone 12) - Can be grown outdoors during the summer in a sheltered location with temperatures above 12℃ (54℉), but is fine to remain indoors, too. If you decide to bring this plant outdoors, don't allow it to endure any direct sunlight as it may result in sun-scorch and dehydration. Regularly keep an eye out for pests, especially when re-introducing it back indoors.
Up to 2m in height and 1.5m in width if repotted every other year. The ultimate height will take between 5 - 10 years to achieve, but can live for up to 20 years or more in the right care.
Remove yellow or dying leaves, and plant debris to encourage better-growing conditions. While pruning, always use clean utensils or shears to reduce the chance of bacterial and fungal diseases. Never cut through yellowed tissue as this may cause further damage in the likes of diseases or bacterial infections. Remember to make clean incisions as too-damaged wounds may shock the plant, causing weakened growth and a decline in health.
Via Seed or Stem Cuttings.
Stem Cuttings (Easy) - Using a clean pair of scissors, cut a 5cm (2 inches) section off the stem's terminal. Be sure to use a fresh, damage or pest-free piece as unhealthy divisions are more likely to fail. Remove the older half of the leaves, so that the stem's lower portion is bare, to speed the process of root development. Purchase a 'Cactus & Succulent' compost and vertically push the cutting's base into the soil, avoiding the risk of covering the actual foliage with soil. Situate the cutting in a bright, indirect setting with temperatures above 18°C (64°F). As the roots will develop first, remove the bag and treat it as an adult specimen once there are signs of new foliar development.
During mid-summer, matured specimens can produce small clusters of pink or white scented flowers that are around 2mm in size, lasting up to several weeks. Elephant Bushes won't flower in a domestic setting for many years due to the unfavourable growing conditions and time in which it takes to reach maturity.
During the spring, repot every two or three years using a 'Cactus & Succulent' potting mix and the next sized pot with drainage. This is an excellent time to check the roots' condition, as well as propagation if you desire. As Elephant Bushes are prone to root rot, have a look around the bottom half of the root ball for any brown or broken down roots caps. If this is the case, remove the affected areas with clean utensils and ease off with the irrigations.
Pests & Diseases
Keep an eye out for mealybugs, scale, whitefly, vine weevils & root mealybugs that'll locate themselves in the cubbyholes and undersides of the leaves, with the exception of the latter two in the soil. Common diseases associated with Elephant Bushes are root rot, botrytis, rust, powdery mildew & southern blight.
Not known to be poisonous when consumed by pets and humans. If large quantities are eaten, it may result in vomiting, nausea and a loss of appetite.