How to Plant, Grow and Care For Elephant Bush

Thinking of adding a succulent to your garden and can't decide which one to pick? Elephant Bush might be the perfect fit for your next succulent plant. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss shares everything you need to know about Elephant Bush, including its maintenance and care needs.

Elephant Bush in Pots on Tile Counter

Contents

Sometimes called the miniature jade plant, elephant bush is not actually related to the jade plant, which is a member of the Crassula family of plants. It is considered part of the Portulacaria family, commonly known as Purslane, although there is some research that suggests that it should be classified in the Didieraceae family.

This interesting plant is commonly sold as a houseplant, but in its native South Africa, it is quite a large plant, growing up to 15’ tall. This plant gets its name from the elephants who like to graze on its foliage. The leaves are also eaten by humans. It has a sour flavor and is commonly used in salads.

Elephant bush has recently been recognized for its nearly unparalleled ability to remove carbon from the air, which makes it a fantastic house plant. This succulent plant is easy to propagate and makes a nice hanging basket plant as well.

Quick Care Guide

Plant Type:
Perennial Succulent
Exposure:
Full Sun to Part Shade
Native Area:
South Africa
Season:
Summer
Watering Needs:
Low to Moderate
Height:
8’-15’ tall
Family:
Didiereaceae
Plant Spacing:
2’
Plant With:
Succulents and Cacti
Genus:
Portulacaria
Maintenance:
Low
Diseases:
Root Rot, Botrytis,
Powdery Mildew,
Southern Blight
Species:
Portulacaria afra
Planting Depth:
Shallow
Attracts:
Bees
Hardiness Zones:
10-11
Soil Type:
Well drained
Pests:
Whiteflies,
Spider mites, Mealybugs

Classification

Close-up of elephant bush plants in hanging flowerpots on a blurred background. The plant has long, sprawling purplish-brown stems with small, round, fleshy leaves with cream edging.
Elephant bush is a long-living succulent that doesn’t shed its leaves.

Elephant bush is a perennial succulent, although it can technically be considered an evergreen, as it does not shed its leaves for a dormant period. It is a very long-living succulent plant, and with the proper care, it can live up to 50 years.

If you are looking for an easy-care, fast-growing houseplant that thrives in sunny windows, look no further than Elephant Bush. With its fleshy green leaves and striking red stems, this plant is eye-catching and fun to cultivate.

Leaf Formation

Close-up of branches of Portulacaria afra, elephant bush or dwarf jade plant. The plant has red-brown stems, covered with many small, round, juicy, bright green cream-colored leaves.
Elephant bush leaves, which are small and fleshy, are commonly eaten by humans and animals.

The leaves of the elephant bush are small and resemble those of a jade plant. They are oval to round and bright green, occasionally with purple margins. These leaves are fleshy and plump and are the part of the tree most commonly eaten by both humans and animals, as the trunk is woody and semi-hard.

Flowers

Close-up of Portulacaria Afra flowering plants in white decorative pots. The soil mixture is covered with small decorative pebbles. The stems of the plant are branched, covered with variegated fleshy rounded shapes of pale green and cream hues. Clusters of pink star-shaped flowers bloom on the stems.
Elephant bush flowers prolifically with small pink star-shaped clusters.

Elephant bush does bloom, but it is unlikely to bloom indoors. It typically only blooms when grown in mild climates outdoors. But never say never! These plants CAN bloom indoors; it’s just not something to depend on.

Interestingly, the conditions needed for the plant to bloom are dry weather. If the elephant bush stays dry for some time and then gets good rain, it can bloom. This only happens when the plant is mature, and it typically blooms in the fall.

In South Africa, where this succulent grows wild in its native habitat, it flowers prolifically, covering the tops of the shrubs with a sea of small, star-shaped, pink flowers in large clusters.

Propagation

Elephant bush can be propagated in three ways: root cuttings, stem cuttings, and leaf cuttings. Root cuttings put unnecessary stress on the parent plant, so it is recommended to avoid this. Propagating from stem cuttings is just as quick and will be less taking on the parent plant.

Stem Cuttings

Close-up of Portulacaria afra Stem Cuttings in a clay pot with soil mix. The stem is short with rounded fleshy dark green leaves.
The easiest way to propagate elephant bush is through stem cuttings taken in spring or summer.

Propagation by stem cuttings is the easiest way to propagate elephant bush. As with most succulents, leaf or stem cuttings will root very easily under the right conditions. The best time to take cuttings is in spring and summer, during active growth periods, to give the cuttings a good start.

Choose a stem with plump leaves with a general look of good health. Use clean hand shears to clip your cuttings just below a node and allow them to dry for a few days before planting.

YouTube video
Stem cuttings are one of the most popular methods of plant propagation.

 Place cuttings cut side down into a container of moist cactus potting soil, you can increase the drainage by adding some pumice, which will hold moisture but drain well. It’s important to keep the soil moist but not wet while the cuttings take root, which takes 1-3 weeks.

Leaf Cuttings

You can propagate elephant bush from leaves in the same way. However, it will take longer, and stem cuttings have a higher success rate, so it is not the recommended method.

 If you are not in a hurry and want to produce a large number of these plants without cutting away too much of the parent plant, simply remove some leaves, allow them to dry for three days and then stick them into a pot of wet soil with the attached side down. They should root within 3 weeks and you will have small plants next year.

Growing Elephant Bush

Elephant bush is considered easy to grow as a houseplant. It does not require an intense amount of attention and can be quite happy with just the occasional watering and a spot near a sunny window.

The biggest issue with one of these plants will be overwatering. There are some additional diseases and pests that can affect the elephant bush, but as an indoor succulent plant, these are mostly preventable.

Planting Depth and Potting Needs

Top view of many young Portulacaria afra variegata plants in black plastic pots. The plant has short stems covered with small variegated rounded leaves of pale green and cream colors.
Elephant bush thrives in hanging baskets or bonsai pots due to its shallow root system.

Elephant bush has a shallow and delicate root system. This makes them good hanging plants, and they also grow nicely in bonsai pots. The greatest concern is supporting the top portion of the plant, as the roots do not act as a very solid anchor. Both indoors and outdoors, elephant bush has shallow planting needs.

It is imperative to plant your elephant bush in a container with at least one drainage hole so that you don’t run the risk of fungus in the container. Unglazed pots are great for succulents as they absorb water, maintaining moisture in the soil, but preventing saturation.

As a succulent, an elephant bush needs soil that drains very well. Cactus potting soil is a great place to begin. Overwatering this plant can quickly lead to root rot, which is a major killer of indoor succulent plants.

Regular potting soil will typically hold too much moisture for these plants. If you want to increase the drainage of the soil, you can mix in some material with coarse particles, such as perlite or sand. A good ratio of soil to perlite or sand would be 3:1.

Light

Close-up of a Portulacaria afra plant against a blurred background of a green garden. This succulent plant has red-brown stems covered with small, round, fleshy, glossy green leaves.
Elephant bush prefers bright, indirect light with a little direct morning sunlight, but can tolerate full sun conditions.

Elephant bush is a succulent and a sun lover. It will tolerate full sun, but the ideal exposure for this plant is bright but indirect sunlight for most of the day.

Like most plants that grow well in indirect bright light, there is a distinct preference for the cooler morning sun. The afternoon sun tends to be hotter and more intense, which may burn the leaves and leave this plant looking leggy.

This plant should be placed near a sunny window where it can receive light for most of the day. If too much afternoon sun is an issue, you can diffuse the light with a sheer curtain, and this plant will feel right at home.

Water

Close-up of the leaves of the Portulacaria afra plant covered with water drops. The leaves are small, rounded, smooth, fleshy, bright green in color.
Elephant bush has low watering needs, but regular watering is necessary for its well-being.

These plants do not have high watering needs, although they will perform better if you don’t forget to water them. They do not thrive on neglect at quite the same level as many succulents. When watering, purified water or rainwater is best. Chlorinated water can stress elephant bush roots.

During the hottest months, elephant bush should be watered once per week. This can be reduced to every 10-14 days in spring and fall. In winter, it can be further reduced to once per month. It is best to keep the soil slightly moist and water when the soil dries. You can check by testing the soil with a finger. If the soil is dry ½” down, it needs to be watered.

Overwatering can be a problem for this plant, as it is for most succulents. That is why we say the soil should be moist but not wet. Excess water can cause root rot, a quick way to a dead plant.

Climate and Temperature

Close-up of a flowering plant Portulacaria afra in a large blue pot. The plant has round, fleshy variegated leaves of pale green and cream hues. Clusters of star-shaped, soft pink-purple flowers bloom at the tips of the stems.
Elephant bush prefers a humid environment with 50% humidity and cannot survive a freeze.

Unlike most succulent plants, elephant bush prefers a humid environment. A humidity level of 50% is just about perfect for this plant. If you cannot achieve this humidity level in the home, you can try using a pebble tray or a humidifier to raise the humidity. Misting the plant will also serve this purpose as long as it is done regularly.

Elephant bush is not cold tolerant and cannot survive a freeze. The ideal temperature for this plant is between 65°-80°F, which is also in the ideal range for most humans, which is another factor that makes this a great houseplant.

If you keep your elephant bush outdoors in the warmer months and indoors in the cooler months, expect the plant to undergo some stress when you make the transition. Make the transition gradually by moving the plant to an intermediate space. A shaded spot outdoors will help to minimize the amount of stress.

Fertilizing

Close-up of a young Portulacaria afra plant in a small brown pot. The plant has young stems covered with rounded shiny green leaves tapering towards the base. Small white granular fertilizers on the soil.
Elephant bush requires minimal fertilizing, with once a month in spring and fall.

Elephant bush doesn’t need very much in the way of fertilizer. No fertilizer is needed at all during the winter, and once per month will be sufficient in spring and fall. You can increase this to bi-weekly in the summer, but be careful not to overdo it.

Using a low nitrogen formula is best, and dilute your fertilizer to ½ strength to avoid salt buildup on the roots. Salt buildup can contribute to leaf scorch, so be careful about over-fertilizing.

Pruning and Maintenance

Close-up of a pruning Portulacaria afra bonsai plant against a gray wall. Female hands cut branches with black secateurs. The plant has wooden trunks and branched stems, covered with many small green leaves, slightly tear-shaped, tapering towards the base.
Regular pruning is necessary to maintain both shape and size.

Pruning your elephant bush will help to keep it looking shapely and robust. Over time, these plants can get quite large and unruly. They grow quickly, so if you want to maintain the shape and size of your plant, regular pruning of most succulents should take place at the end of spring. This way, the plant has time to recover during its growing season.

The amount of pruning you do will depend upon the size of the plant and whether you want to control the size or encourage more growth. To maintain the size of the plant, cut branches back by about ⅓. If you simply want to encourage branching and growth, cut much less.

Make sure to trim away any branches that cross the interior of the plant, as these can cause leaf damage and create an environment in which both insects and fungi will thrive. Pruning will help keep your plant from becoming leggy.

Toxicity

Close-up of a Portulacaria afra plant in a black pot against a white background. The plant has spreading woody stems covered with small, round, glossy dark green leaves.
Elephant bush is safe for pets and children as it is non-toxic.

Elephant bush is not toxic to humans or animals, making it a safe plant for pets and children. It is a common food for elephants, goats, and other grazing animals in places where it grows wild, which include its native South Africa, as well as the Western United States.

Varieties

There are a few different varieties you may come across in local garden centers or when shopping for your plant online. let’s look at some of the most common varieties you’ll likely encounter.

Minima

Top view, close-up of a Portulacaria afra Minima plant in a hanging pot against a white background. The plant has long drooping rose-red stems covered with small, round, bright green, glossy leaves.
Portulacaria afra Minima is a trailing plant with tiny leaves that thrives in full sun indoors.

Botanical Name: Portulacaria afra Minima

  • Sun Requirements: Bright Indirect Light to Full Sun
  • Hardiness Zones: 10-11

This variety has tiny leaves, each one not any larger than a pea. It is a low-growing trailing plant that will flower when stressed. The trailing branches reach about 2’ long and looks wonderful peeking out from the border of a rock garden or hanging from a basket. Indoors it needs full sun, but as an outdoor plant, it can thrive in part shade.

Variegata

Top view, close-up of Portulacaria afra Variegata plants in brown pots. The plant has purplish-pink spreading stems covered with rounded succulent pale green leaves with cream markings.
Rainbow Bush has variegated leaves with red-brown stems and pale green and cream leaves.

Botanical Name: Portulacaria afra Variegata

  • Sun Requirements: Sun or Shade
  • Hardiness Zones:10-11

Also known as Rainbow Bush, the variegated variety of Elephant Bush is a lovely, sprawling plant that can have a spread of up to 6’ and also reach up to 12’ in height.

It has wonderful reddish-brown stems and pale green and cream-colored leaves. It doesn’t bloom much in captivity but can produce pretty lavender flower clusters.

Decumbent

Close-up of a Portulacaria afra Decumbent plant against a beige wall indoors. The plant has upright tall reddish-brown stems covered with light green rounded leaves with a glossy surface.
The easy-to-grow Portulacaria afra has bright lime green leaves and produces purple flower clusters when blooming.

Botanical Name: Portulacaria afra Decumbent

  • Sun Requirements: Bright Filtered Light
  • Hardiness Zones: 10-11

This variety is known for being easy to grow. Its bright, lime-green leaves stand out against reddish-brown stems, and when it blooms, it produces clusters of purple flowers.

This is more of a trailing variety, although it can grow up to 8’ tall when planted in the ground. It likes lots of filtered light and warm temperatures.

Medio-picta

Close-up of a young Portulacaria afra Medio-picta plant in a square black pot against a blue wall. The plant has pink short stems covered with juicy, rounded green leaves with a white stripe down the center.
The Midstripe Rainbow Bush is a small, slow-growing variety with green leaves and a white stripe down the center.

Botanical Name: Portulacaria afra Medio-picta

  • Sun Requirements: Light Shade
  • Hardiness Zones: 10-11

Also known as the Midstripe Rainbow Bush, medio-picta is a small variety that stays close to 2’ tall and wide. It’s a slow grower with red stems. The main attraction for this plant are its leaves which are green with a white stripe down the center, and occasionally, they have no green at all. This variety prefers cooler temperatures and doesn’t do well in direct sun.

Pests and Diseases

Elephant Bush is not particularly susceptible to pests and diseases, but a few issues could crop up if the environment is too damp. Most pests come into the environment from new plants.

The best way to prevent losing your houseplants to insect infestation is to examine new plants before bringing them into the house. Any plants with a disease or infestation should be isolated and treated, making sure that the issue is dealt with before introducing it into the home where other plants can be affected.

Root Rot

Close-up of an Elephant Bush plant against a blurred background. The plant has thick stems covered with rounded green fleshy leaves. The lower leaves turn yellow and have brownish spots due to root rot.
Overwatering causes root rot in succulent plants due to fungus growth.

Root rot is a typical issue for succulent plants, generally caused by fungal growth due to overwatering. Wet soil is a breeding ground for fungi, and the constant moisture causes a breakdown in the root tissue.

Root rot can be prevented by proper potting and care methods. Make sure your container has adequate drainage, and don’t water too often. Remember that the soil should dry almost completely between waterings.

Botrytis

Close-up of the leaves of an Elephant Bush plant with grey-brown rotting spots. The leaves are small, rounded, juicy, green and glossy.
Botrytis cinerea is a fungus that can affect succulents in cool, damp environments.

Botrytis cinerea is a fungus that can appear in cool, damp environments. Its favorite victims are fruit-bearing plants, but succulents can also be a host to this type of rot.

Also known as gray mold, botrytis is more prevalent in soil that has excess nitrogen and manifests as a grayish-white, velvety mold. Treatment involves the removal of affected tissue and the use of fungicidal agents.

Powdery Mildew

Close-up of an Elephant Bush plant with powdery mildew infested leaves, in front of a white background. The plant has burgundy stems covered with juicy, smooth, glossy, rounded green leaves covered with a thin gray-white bloom.
Powdery mildew is a common fungus that prefers dry climates causing stunted growth.

This fungal disease is one that prefers dry climates and is the most common fungus you will find in the garden. It shows up as a chalky white residue on leaves and will stunt the plant’s growth as it inhibits photosynthesis.

This is more common outdoors, as it travels on the wind, but it’s not impossible to end up with powdery mildew in the house if you move plants in and out.

Southern Blight

Top view, close-up of an Elephant Bush plant in a large red pot, outdoors. The plant has branched, thick, woody stems with few tiny, smooth, round, green leaves.
Sclerotium rolfsii, a soil-borne fungus, is hard to eradicate but rare in potted plants.

Also known as Sclerotium rolfsii, this soil-borne fungus is very difficult to deal with, so it’s best to prevent it. When it is found in the soil, it has to be treated with steam, which will also kill the roots of your plants. The good news is that it rarely shows up in potted plants, so unless you’re planting in the ground, it’s not an issue.

Whiteflies

Close-up of a whitefly on a green plant. The whitefly is a tiny, white, moth-like insect that sucks sap from plants.
Whitefly infestation can be caused by excess nitrogen in the soil.

Too much nitrogen is a factor in managing a whitefly infestation. These guys tend to show up in plants that have an excess of nitrogen in the soil. These little flying bugs are related to aphids. They lay their eggs on plants, and when the larvae hatch, they feast on your plant’s sap.

These, like many insects, leave behind a sticky excrement called honeydew, which can play host to sooty mold, so insects can really wreak havoc on your houseplant collection. You’re most likely to find them on the underside of leaves, and a strong stream of water is the first line of defense. Spray as many off as you can, and then treat the plant with an insecticide or neem oil.

Spider Mites

Close-up of the stems of a Portulacaria afra plant infested with spider mites. The stems are long, red-burgundy in color with small rounded juicy green leaves. There is a thin web around the leaves.
Spider mites are hard to detect and eradicate, leaving fine webbing on the leaves, and draining the plant’s sap.

These tiny terrors are difficult to spot and difficult to treat. They are most commonly identified by the existence of their fine webbing on the underside of leaves and sometimes in the plant’s container. They feed on the sap, sucking the life out of your plants and leaving behind honeydew.

Neem oil works well to rid your home of these guys, but more than one treatment is usually necessary. They also have a lot of natural predators, so leaving your plants outdoors can help, but it can also lead to other insects indoors, so exercise caution.

Mealybugs

Close-up of a mealybug on a purple-pink succulent stem. The mealybug is small, has an oval body, covered with a white wax coating.
Mealybugs are difficult to deal with and have a waxy coating that makes them hard to remove.

If you’ve ever dealt with these waxy, white crawlers, you know that it’s nothing you want to experience again, and you likely inspect your new plants a bit better these days. I myself have had to deal with mealybugs, and they are a real pain. Their waxy coating makes them difficult to get rid of.

An alcohol-soaked cotton swab is a great weapon against these pests as it helps to break down that waxy coating. This is another pest with many natural predators, and leaving affected plants outdoors for a few days is a good way to knock down their population.

Final Thoughts

The elephant bush is an easy houseplant to care for. It has very few needs and can stand to be neglected for moderate periods of time. This pretty succulent looks great both on its own and in a mixed succulent planter or garden and makes a nice hanging plant. While it rarely flowers in cultivation, it can, and it’s a lovely display when that happens.

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