Elephant Bush - Portulacaria Afra


Top Tips

  • Elephant Bushes must endure periods of droughts in between waters - if you're stuck with when to water it, think of the ukhouseplants' phrase of 'Drenches Between Droughts'. 
  • A few hours of morning or evening sun is mandatory, especially in the winter months.
  • Avoid situating in a dark location, due to the heightened chance of diseases above, and below the soil line.
  • Supplement at monthly intervals all year round, using either a Cactus or Houseplant feed, or a general plant fertiliser.
  • Repot every two or three years during the spring, using a Cactus & Succulent potting mix.

•Water - 🔸🔸

Elephant Bushes must endure torrential downpours in between prolonged droughts to survive in the wild. Keeping this in mind, rehydrate only once all of the soil has thoroughly dried out for around a week, while reducing this further during autumn and winter. If you have trouble knowing when to water one, remember the ukhouseplants phrase; 'drenches between droughts'. 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 your Elephant Bush in a dark location; the combination of both too little light and too much soil moisture will slowly lead to root rot. For more severe cases, click on the link below for more info on how to address root rot.

Repotting & Addressing Root Rot


•Humidity -

Although low humidity won't affect this genus, a gentle hose down from time to time will reduce the number of dust particles and potential pests inhabiting the foliage. Do not allow excess moisture to sit either on the foliage or in its cubbyholes as both can entice powdery mildew to develop, which can cause potentially significant damage if untreated.


•Location & Light - 🔸🔸🔸

A brightly lit location is mandatory for all forms of succulents; however, strong direct sunlight should be avoided at all costs as reddened leaves is a clear sign of burnt foliage. For those grown in shady spots, be sure to reduce the frequency of irrigations further to counteract the chances of diseases associated with over-watering. Having said this, locations, where a newspaper cannot be read, must be avoided at all costs as most succulents will not respond well to this level of lighting.


•Fertilisation - 🔸

Twice a month in summer, and only once in winter using either houseplant feed, cactus feed or general plant fertiliser at half of the recommended strength. 'Ready to use' fertilisers must not be directly applied without a pre-water beforehand, to reduce the chances of burning the roots.




Secrets to Success

Firstly, a consistent watering schedule is mandatory for quick, reliable growth. What ukhouseplants has learnt over the years, is that as long as you leave the soil to dry out between drenches thoroughly, success is inevitable. Our second piece of advice is to always water over the sink and not in its decorative pot. Leaving the plant in the decorative pot during a water will cause a reservoir of standing water that'll kill the roots and eventually the plant itself. Always provide a bright location with some direct light either in the morning or evening, but never all day as this will lead to both stunted growth and potential terminal damage. If your Elephant Bush is situated in a darker location, be sure to allow the soil dry out longer in between waterings to counteract the chances of root rot.




Common Issues with Elephant Bushes

Root rot is a big issue; typical symptoms include yellowing lower leaves, stunted growth often accompanied by stem collapse. Take the plant out of the pot and inspect its root systems. If the roots sport a yellow tinge, you're good to go, but if they're brown and mushy with the soil being quite soggy, action must be taken immediately. More information about addressing root rot can be found on this link.

Dust 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. Wipe the topside of the leaves down once a month to keep levels down and improve growing conditions.

Failed leaf cuttings are a common issue among amateur gardeners, with damaged wounds being the usual culprit. Although propagating Elephant Bushes is relatively easy, people still find it hard to ace. The best head-up is to empathise the simpleness of the wound. Place your fingers close to the junction between the mother plant and its leaf, and pull the leaf downwards - you should feel a snap. As long as the wound is intact with no damage either to the area or around the leaf in general, propagation should be successful. For more information about leaf cuttings, scroll down to the 'Propagation' section of this article.

Too much sunlight will cause a red tinge to the foliage. Although Elephant Bush is best grown in locations offering around two hours of direct sunlight a day, prolonged periods of intense rays cannot be tolerated. Reduce the amount of sunlight received to just one hour a day, while keeping the growing conditions relatively similar to reduce the effects of environmental shock. Although its new growth will develop into its original green texture, sunburnt leaves will remain red or yellow for the rest of its functioning life.

A lack of flowers could be due to an array of different issues that include irregular watering habits, too little light and not enough fertilisation. It'll take many years for an Elephant Bush to reach maturity, and because of this, blooms may take up to eight years to form. Cold water must not be used during the flowering period (summer) as sudden temperature changes can shock the plant, preventing further blooms. Improper growing conditions could also cause problems. Avoid locations that are both too dark and too bright, and always provide a good level of humidity. Finely mist the foliage twice a week while keeping the flowers dry to avoid an attack from botrytis petal blight or powdery mildew.


Despite it's slow tendency to grow, Portulacaria can easily be manipulated into Bonsai form.



Origins

Portulacaria is a genus consisting over ten species with natural distributions in Southern Africa. The name derives from Latin, with portula translating to 'door' that refers to the opening lid of its fruits. Caria translates as 'relating to', which is a reference to the similarity of plants in this genus to in Portulaca. The species name, Afra, is an epithet to their natural habitat in South 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.


Temperature

10°C - 26°C   (50° - 78°F)
H1b - can be grown outdoors in summer in a sheltered location, but is fine to remain indoors. If you decide to bring this houseplant outdoors, do not allow it to endure more than an hour of direct sunlight a day as this will burn the leaves. Regularly keep an eye out for pests.


Spread

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 30 years or more in the right care.

Pruning

Remove yellowed or dying leaves and plant debris to encourage better growth and improve the all-round appearance. Pruning must be done with clean scissors or shears to reduce the chance of bacterial and fungal diseases; remember to make clean incisions as too much damage can shock the plant. Stem cuttings can be taken to halve the height of the specimen, as well as leaf cuttings.


Propagation

Via seed or leaf/stem cuttings.

Leaf Cuttings - Leaves that are halfway along the stem have the most potential due to its size and maturity. Gently place your fingers between the mother's stem and the leaf's base, pulling it downwards until you hear a snap. Ensure the wound is wholly intact with no damage as a bruise or tear will result in unsuccessful propagation. Set the leaf ON TOP OF a bed of moist Cactus & Succulent Compost for root growth. Not only will this callous the wound (to prevent disease), but it'll also speed up the propagation process considerably. Once there's 0.3cm of root development, place it one third into the compost, at a slight angle. Provide a bright setting with temperatures around 18°C (64°F) with the majority of the soil drying out in between waters. New leaves should emerge within the next month, as long as the soil is kept on the drier to life. 

Stem Cuttings - Nip two inches off from the leading growths, located at the edge of the foliage line using your fingers or sterile scissors. Be sure to choose damage free, the juvenile growth as any cuts and bruises will lead to disease. Place the stems a third into the soil, making sure no leaves are submerged - you may have to remove the lower leaves to reinforce this step. Use a 5cm pot and with a well-draining potting mix, preferably Cactus & Succulent Compost, to reduce the risk of over-watering and basal rot. Provide a bright setting with temperatures around 18°C (64°F) with the majority of the soil drying out in between waters. New leaves should emerge within the six weeks, as long as the soil is kept on the drier to life. If you need any more help with propagating succulents, send us an email via this link!


Flowers

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.


Repotting 

Repot every other year using Cactus & Succulent Compost and a larger pot. This is an excellent time to check the roots' condition, as well as division. 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. If this is the case, remove the affected areas with clean utensils and ease off with the irritations. Click on this link to learn about how to perform the perfect transplant. Repotting Your Elephant Bush


Diseases & Pests

Typical diseases associated with this species are root rot, leaf-spot disease & powdery mildew. Keep an eye out for scale, spider mite, mealybugs & thrips. For more information on how to address any of these issues, click on this link.  Identifying Common Houseplant Pests & Diseases


Toxicity

Not known to be poisonous by consumption of pets and humans. If high quantities are eaten, it may result in vomiting, nausea and a loss of appetite. Elephant Bushes can be eaten with salad or a soup in its native country of South Africa.


Retail Locations

Dobbies, Online Stores.

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