Garden Oracle / Drought and Heat Tolerant Gardening / Tucson - Phoenix - Arizona - California

Growing Portulacaria afra:
Elephant Bush

social icons Facebook Pinterest Instagram

Form: A succulent shrub.
Lifespan: Over 50 years.
Leaf retention: Evergreen.
Growth rate: Slow to rapid depending on growing conditions.
Mature Size: 4-12' (1.2-3.7m) high and somewhat wider.
Flowers: Tiny, white to pink to lavender, clustered on terminal spikes.
Bloom: Late spring to early summer. Watering, moist soil, and enriched or fertilized soil discourage blooming.
Fruit: Small dry capsule.
Leaves: Green, oval, smooth margins, fleshy and edible. The leaves have a cucumber-citrus or green apple flavor and are high in vitamin C. They regrow quickly after being browsed. Several cultivars have variegated leaves.
Stems: Woody, green to dark red, easily broken, no thorns. Broken branches fallen on the ground may take root.
Roots: Extensive.
Wildlife: The flowers attract bees. The leaves attract browsing animals, including elephants, cattle, and javelina. They are a favorite of tortoises.
Toxic / Danger: No.
Origin: South Africa.

Cultivation and Uses
USDA hardiness zones: 9-11. Hardy to 25°F (-3.9°C) after becoming established.
Heat tolerant: Yes, however, green varieties tolerate high temperatures better than variegated varieties.
Drought tolerant: Yes.
Sun: Part shade all day or morning sun with afternoon part shade. In high temperatures, avoid afternoon full sun. This plant does not tolerate full shade.
Water after becoming established: This plant often needs no water in a favorable location.
Soil: Well drained, dry, low in organic content, sandy, somewhat tolerant otherwise. Fertilizing or enriched soil will prevent this plant from flowering. It is salt tolerant.
Mulch: Mulch only in freezing conditions during the first three years. Remove mulch by mid spring so the soil will dry faster. Moist soil inhibits blooming.
First Year Care: Protect from freezing the first two or three years. Deep watering in the first year will help it develop deep roots to withstand heat and drought.
Planting: Outdoors, this plant handles high temperatures much better in the ground, but can be grown in containers with more frequent watering. It can be grown indoors in a sunny location, and used for bonsai. Outdoors it must be protected from browsing animals.
Prune: Trimming is rarely needed and should be done only to shape. It can be pruned into a hedge.
Litter: Low.
Propagation: Cuttings root easily.
Uses: The edible leaves are added to salads and soups. It is also grown as an ornamental and can be used for erosion control.

This plant is a member of the Porkbush family (Didiereaceae). It was previously assigned to the Purslane family. Other common names are Elephant Food, Pork Bush, and Spekboom (Afrikaans for bacon tree).
This plant has the distinction of being a high carbon-sink plant, removing more carbon dioxide from the air during photosynthesis than most other plants.
This plant often does not flower in cultivation because it should not be grown in enriched soil, or fertilized, and the soil must be entirely dry before it is scheduled to bloom.

Do you have additional information or a different experience for these plants that you would like to share? Email All contributions are welcome and appreciated.

Portulacaria afra flowers

By Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid-6153223

Latest update: February, 2024
© 2008-2024 by