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Elephant Bush Care 101

by Jack Grover
elephant bush plant
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The Elephant Bush (Portulacaria Afra) is a must-have addition to your garden. Native to South Africa, this easy-to-care-for succulent boasts reddish-colored stems and vibrant green or variegated foliage.

Growing the Elephant Bush requires sandy, rocky, and well-draining soil. It thrives in intense sunlight for several hours each day.

This versatile plant can be grown indoors as a houseplant or outdoors in milder climates. Its drought-tolerant nature makes it low maintenance, but it grows more rapidly with sufficient water.

Below, we present all the information you need to grow Elephant Bush. We cover propagation methods, watering techniques, common pests and diseases to watch out for, as well as the most popular varieties of Elephant Bush available.

Join us on this journey as we explore the ins and outs of caring for this magnificent plant!

Quick Care Guide

Plant Type:Perennial SucculentExposure:Full Sun to Part ShadeNative Area:South Africa
Season:SummerWatering Needs:Low to ModerateHeight:6”-20′ tall
Family:DidiereaceaePlant Spacing:2′Plant With:Succulents and Cacti
Genus:PortulacariaMaintenance:LowDiseases:Root Rot, Botrytis,Powdery Mildew,Southern Blight
Species:Portulacaria afraPlanting Depth:ShallowAttracts:Bees
Hardiness Zones:10-11Soil Type:Well-drainedPests:Whiteflies,Spider mites, Mealybugs

What Is Elephant Bush?

Elephant Bush is a fascinating succulent that will captivate you with its vibrant colors and unique shape. This small-leaved plant, also known as Portulacaria Afra, hails from South Africa.

Its reddish stems and green or variegated foliage are both visually appealing and edible — the leaves and stems can be added to salads and soups.

It’s also versatile. Since it has the ability to grow anywhere from six inches to 20 feet in height, you can use it in various ways around your yard.

As a smaller growth, it can be an adorable, ornamental houseplant.

In contrast, it becomes valuable as a privacy screen when it reaches its maximum height. It can effectively block unwanted views or add exclusivity to your landscape. 

Able to adapt and flourish in many sizes, Elephant Bush is perfect for varied purposes. Be it aesthetic appeal or practical use — this plant delivers it all.

Growing Conditions

colorful elephant bush in flower pot

Whether you grow Elephant Bush in your house or your garden, it’s important to provide it with the right conditions for optimal growth.

As mentioned above, Elephant Bush thrives in bright light. Still, direct sunlight should be avoided as it can cause leaf damage.

When grown indoors, place your Elephant Bush by a south-facing window with indirect sunlight.

In terms of soil, well-drained soil is crucial to secure optimal growth. A mixture of cactus or potting soil cut with vermiculite or pumice works best. Avoid using sand in the mix, as it doesn’t provide adequate drainage.

If you live in a warm region and plan to grow your Elephant Bush outdoors, incorporate about 3 inches of gritty material into the soil for proper drainage.

Temperature-wise, when temperatures warm up sufficiently during inclement weather, you can move your indoor-grown plant outside. However, make sure to gradually acclimate or “harden off” the plant before permanently placing it outdoors.

Once nighttime temperatures approach 40°F (4°C), bring the plant back indoors.

Propagation Methods

Elephant Bush can be propagated through three distinct methods: root cuttings, stem cuttings, and leaf cuttings. Each of these has unique aspects that impact not only the new offshoot but also the parent plant.

The first method is through root cuttings. This technique usually poses unnecessary stress on the parent plant.

The extraction of roots weakens their footing and stability, threatening the overall health of the Elephant Bush. Hence, it is generally recommended to avoid this practice.

Comparatively, using stem cuttings allows for propagation that is less draining on the plant.

This method is also time-efficient; seeing results is just as fast as with root cutting. The key is to keep the soil consistently moist until roots emerge, which usually takes about 1-3 weeks.

Here are three tips for propagating Elephant Bush through stem cuttings:

  1. Choose healthy stems: Look for stems with plump leaves that appear healthy. Using clean hand shears, clip the cuttings just below a node.
  1. Allow cuttings to dry: After taking your stem cuttings, allow them to dry for a few days before planting. It will prevent rotting and promote better root development.
  1. Use well-draining soil: Plant your stem cuttings in a container filled with moist cactus potting soil. You can improve drainage by adding some pumice to the mix. Keep the soil moist but not wet during the rooting process.

Replicating an Elephant Bush through leaf cuttings takes longer than this method. That being said, it could be your best bet if you’re not hard-pressed for time. This approach can drive a larger yield without pruning much of the mother plant.

Here’s how to approach this process step-by-step:

  1. Start by plucking a few leaves off the Elephant Bush.
  1. Once done, allow them to air dry for approximately three days.
  1. The next step is to place these leaves in a pot containing damp soil. Remember to position the attached end downwards.
  1. In roughly three weeks’ time, expect the leaves to produce roots.
  1. Over time, likely by next year, these will develop into small plants.

Watering and Humidity

close up image of elephant bush

Watering and maintaining proper humidity levels are essential for the health and vibrancy of your Elephant Bush succulent.

While these plants are drought-tolerant, they still require some watering during the spring through fall months.

Keep an eye on rainfall and water only when the soil is dry. Overwatering can lead to root rot, so allowing the soil to dry out between waterings is crucial.

When watering your Elephant Bush, make sure to give it a thorough soak.

During the wintertime, when the plant goes into dormancy, you can refrain from watering until a couple of weeks into spring.

In terms of humidity, Elephant Bush thrives in a humid environment with around 50% humidity. If you live in a dry climate or have low indoor humidity levels, you can increase humidity by placing a tray filled with water near your plant or using a humidifier.

To help you visualize how often and how much you should be watering your Elephant Bush succulent, here’s a helpful table:

SeasonWatering FrequencyAmount of Water
SpringEvery 1-2 weeksThorough soak
SummerEvery 1-2 weeksThorough soak
FallEvery 2-3 weeksThorough soak
Winter Every 4-6 weeks (minimal)Minimal

Pruning and Maintenance

Pruning and Maintenance of plant

Keep your Elephant Bush looking vibrant and well-maintained by regularly pruning and attending to its needs.

Pruning is an essential part of Elephant Bush care, helping keep the plant in shape and prevent it from becoming leggy. It’s best to prune your Elephant Bush at the end of spring, allowing it time to recover during its growing season.

The amount of pruning you do will depend on the size of your plant and your desired outcome. If you want to maintain the size of the plant, trim back branches by about 1⁄3. Doing so will help control its growth and keep it compact.

If you’re looking to encourage more branching and growth, a lighter trim is recommended.

During pruning, remove any branches that cross the interior of the plant. These can cause leaf damage and create an environment for pests and diseases to thrive.

By removing these branches, you’ll promote better air circulation within the plant.

Common Pests and Diseases

Elephant Bush plants usually don’t have many problems with pests and diseases. However, in an overly damp environment, a few issues might occur.

Here are a few of them you may encounter:

  • Overwatering is a leading cause of root rot in succulents, which is characterized by yellowing leaves with brown spots.
  • Botrytis and powdery mildew are fungal infections that thrive in cool, damp environments and can inhibit plant growth.
  • Southern blight is a soil-borne fungus that rarely affects potted plants.
  • Whiteflies can infest plants with excess nitrogen in the soil.

Preventing an insect infestation of your houseplants can be as simple as careful examination. Make it a practice to examine all new plants before you bring them inside your home. Look closely for signs of disease or pests.

If you spot any trouble, isolate the plant immediately. A single untreated plant could affect the entire indoor ecosystem, so proper care is necessary.

Root Rot

To prevent the occurrence of root rot in your Elephant Bush, it’s crucial to follow proper potting and care methods.

Here are some tips to help you avoid this common issue:

  • Use a container with adequate drainage to allow excess water to escape.
  • Choose a well-draining soil mix specifically formulated for succulents, or create your own by combining potting soil with vermiculite or pumice.
  • Water your Elephant Bush sparingly, allowing the soil to dry almost completely between waterings.
  • Ensure your Elephant Bush receives sufficient sunlight and is placed in a warm, draft-free area. This will help maintain optimal health and prevent stress on the plant.

Botrytis

Beware of the sneaky gray mold lurking in cool, damp environments, ready to attack your precious succulents with its velvety touch.

Also known as botrytis, this fungus can affect not only fruit-bearing plants but also succulents like the Elephant Bush. It thrives in soil with excess nitrogen and appears as a grayish-white, velvety mold on the affected tissue.

To combat botrytis and save your beloved Elephant Bush, take prompt action.

Start by removing affected tissue to prevent further spread of the fungus. Then, apply fungicidal agents specifically designed to combat botrytis. Remember to provide proper ventilation and avoid overwatering your plant to create an unfavorable environment for this pesky fungus.

Powdery Mildew

Now let’s discuss another fungal disease that can affect the health of your Elephant Bush: powdery mildew.

Powdery mildew is a common fungus that thrives in dry climates. It appears as a chalky white residue on the leaves, hindering photosynthesis and stunting the plant’s development.

While powdery mildew is more commonly found outdoors, it’s not impossible for it to appear indoors if you bring your plants in and out. This fungus is often spread through wind dispersal, making it essential to take preventative measures to protect your Elephant Bush.

To prevent or treat powdery mildew on your Elephant Bush, provide proper air circulation around the plant and avoid overcrowding. Additionally, consider using organic fungicides specifically designed for powdery mildew control.

Southern Blight

Southern Blight, also known as Sclerotium rolfsii, is a soil-borne fungus that rarely affects potted plants but can be a serious issue in garden beds. This fungus thrives in warm and humid conditions, making it more common in tropical and subtropical regions. 

Here are some key points to understand about Southern Blight:

  • The fungus attacks the base of plants, causing wilting, yellowing of leaves, and eventual death.
  • It produces white mycelium strands and small round structures called sclerotia that resemble mustard seeds.
  • Infected plants should be promptly removed and destroyed to prevent the spread of the fungus.
  • Crop rotation can help reduce the risk of Southern Blight recurrence.
  • Fungicides containing active ingredients like thiophanate-methyl or fluazinam may provide control if applied early.

Preventing Southern Blight involves:

  • Maintaining proper plant spacing.
  • Improving soil drainage.
  • Avoiding excessive moisture around plants’ bases.
  • Using clean gardening tools.

Regular monitoring for signs of infection is crucial for early detection and effective management.

Whiteflies

To control whiteflies on your houseplants, you’ll want to take quick action and treat the infestation with a strong stream of water and an insecticide or neem oil.

Whiteflies are tiny insects that lay their eggs on plants and feed on sap once the larvae hatch. They are commonly found on the underside of leaves and can cause damage to your plant collection.

A strong stream of water can help dislodge these pesky insects from the leaves, making it easier to remove them. An insecticide or neem oil can eliminate any remaining whiteflies and prevent further infestations.

Spider Mites

If you’re careless, spider mites can wreak havoc on your houseplants. They can suck the life out of them and leave behind their telltale fine webbing.

These tiny pests feed on the sap of your plants, causing yellowing leaves, stunted growth, and, eventually, plant death if left untreated.

To control spider mites, isolate affected plants to prevent further spread. You can use a strong stream of water to dislodge the mites from the leaves or wipe them off with a damp cloth.

Neem oil or insecticidal soap can also be effective in controlling these pests. Remember to treat all parts of the plant thoroughly and repeat treatments every few days to ensure complete eradication.

Mealybugs

Mealybugs are a common pest that can infest your plants and cause significant damage if not dealt with promptly. These white crawlers are covered in a thick layer of wax, making them difficult to eliminate.

An alcohol-soaked cotton swab is an excellent weapon against them, as it breaks down their tough coating.

Besides, mealybugs have many natural predators, so leaving affected plants outdoors for a few days can help reduce their population.

Still, keep in mind that some plants may be sensitive to alcohol. In that case, you might need to try other methods or treatments to deal with the infestation.

Varieties of Elephant Bush

Elephant Bush

A wide variety of Elephant Bush plants are available, each with unique characteristics and features.

One popular variety is Aurea, which is a compact specimen with yellow leaves. It adds a vibrant pop of color to any garden or indoor space.

Another interesting variety is Cork Bark, which is perfect for bonsai enthusiasts. Its textured bark adds an intriguing element to the plant’s appearance.

Elephant Bush Bonsai Tree (Portulacaria Afra ) Repot & Prune

If you’re looking for a variegated form of Elephant Bush, Foliis variegatis is a great choice. It is slow-growing and has green leaves with beautiful white variegation. This variety is ideal for growing in containers or small spaces.

Medio-picta is another eye-catching variety with green leaves accented by white markings and brilliant red stems. This combination of colors makes it an attractive addition to any collection.

If you’re interested in using Elephant Bush as ground cover, Prostrata or Low Form varieties are excellent options. They spread horizontally along the ground, creating a carpet-like effect.

Lastly, there’s Portulacaria variegata, which features pale green leaves edged in white or cream and highlighted with touches of pink. This compact succulent prefers less intense sunlight compared to other cultivars.

After a winter dormant period, these Elephant Bush varieties produce small clusters of pink flowers at the ends of their branches, adding an extra touch of beauty to their already stunning appearance.

The Bottom Line

The Elephant Bush is a wonderful choice for a houseplant, thanks to its minimal care requirements. This tree-like succulent merely requires the essential care any plant would need.

If you lead a busy lifestyle and can’t always give time to your plants, this plant is the ideal candidate. It can withstand neglect for moderate periods without showing signs of distress.

The Elephant Bush is not only a hardy plant but also an attractive one. It stands out in any floral setting with its thick, glossy leaves that add a touch of greenery.

Whether placed by itself or included in a mixed succulent planter, this plant is sure to catch your attention.

With proper care and attention to watering needs, Elephant Bush can be a stunning addition to your garden. Explore the different varieties available to find the perfect one for your space.

Happy gardening!

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Elephant Bush be grown indoors as a houseplant?

Yes, it can! It requires bright, indirect light and well-draining soil. Water it regularly but avoid overwatering to prevent root rot.

How often should Elephant Bush be watered?

Elephant Bush should be watered when the soil is dry, usually every 2-3 weeks. It’s drought-tolerant but grows more rapidly with sufficient water.

What are some common pests and diseases that affect Elephant Bush?

Common pests and diseases that affect Elephant Bush include whiteflies, spider mites, mealybugs, root rot, and leaf drop. It’s vital to regularly inspect your plant for signs of infestation or disease and take appropriate measures to control them.

Are there different varieties of Elephant Bush?

Yes, there are. Some popular ones include Aurea, Cork Bark, Medio-picta, Prostrata, and Variegata. Each variety has its own unique characteristics and appearance.

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