Hello! How are you? This is the complete guide on the Portulacaria Afra. A succulent plant that has many benefits and that is a common in homes around the world for its beauty and ease of care (As long as it has a lot of light!) 🌞
Here you will find everything you need to know to care for, reproduce and enjoy your Portulacaria Afra 🙂
What is the Portulacaria Afra (or Spekboom)?
The portulacaria afra is an evergreen succulent originally from South Africa. There, it grows wild and its fleshy leaves are a delicatessen for elephants, goats and rhinos 🌱🐘🐐🦏 ✌
It is a “4 × 4” plant, ideal to have at home for its resilience, its strength and its ease of cultivation. All you ask for is plenty of sun or indirect light. And not overwatering it!
Further, it has many benefits, both in the fight against climate change, and in health, being an edible plant with a slight bitter touch, like green apple. And yes, I have tried it hehe.
Scientific name and common names
Some of its more common names are Spekboom, Elephant Bush, Porkbush, Dwarf Jade Plant (due to their similarity), Money Plant or Mini Coin Plant (by the shape of its leaves).
In Africa, it is known as Spekboom. Spek is bacon in Afrikaan (the 3rd language in South Africa), so you could say that portulacaria is like "elephant bacon". It is also known as Pork Bush or Elephant’s food. All of them names that describe their relationship as food for animals.
Its scientific name is actually Portulacaria Afra (African portulaca) and is one of more than 50 species of Portulaca that belong to the Portulacaceae family.
It is a crass and hermaphroditic plant that, outdoors, can grow into a 5-meter tree and live for more than 200 years 😮
Its stems are brown and even reddish, with small 2 cm oval, glossy green leaves. In spring, if it receives enough light, it can grow small pink flowersbut it's rare to see it bloom.
It is native to the eastern and western capes of South Africa, Mediterranean provinces that border the sea and that share the semi-desert region of Karoo, where the Portulacaria grows wild.
Thus, it is a plant used to harsh climates and extreme temperatures. On a summer day, it can easily tolerate 40ºC. At the same time, it is able to withstand the cold nights of the Karoo desert, where occasional frosts occur.
The portulacaria afra is one of the best carbon sequestrants. Partly because of its rapid growth and partly because of its dense root structure, which helps storing carbon.
Despite being endemic to semi-arid areas, portulacaria scrub tracts can be just as effective at capturing carbon dioxide (and releasing oxygen) as Amazon forests.
In total, one hectare of this succulent has the capacity to capture between 10 and 15 tons of carbon per year. It is a lot to be a bush or scrub.
Let's remember that plants absorb carbon dioxide thanks to photosynthesis, which is stored in the form of organic matter (the fibers, leaves, roots or wood that make up the plant).
On the other hand, the portulacaria is edible and it has a high nutritional value. Its leaves are crisp, moist and juicy. And in addition to being the favorite dish of many animals, they are also used in Cape Town restaurants as a sour note in salads, soups and meats 🥗
Finally, also comment that its crushed leaves are used as soothing and hydrating against burns.
Caring for the Portulacaria Afra
As we have already seen, the elephant bush is quite a tough plant. Still, it doesn't hurt to know its needs:
From 0ºC to 35ºC. That's right, it tolerates extreme temperatures. Although in general it prefers temperate climates, preferably from 15ºC. It can resist frost during the night, as long as they are punctual.
The more sun the better. We can leave her on a terrace fully alone and she will be so happy. If we have it indoors, try to have it in the rooms with more light and as close as possible to the window. Direct sun = Portulacaria sana.
Once every two weeks. In summer too. Most of this plant's problems come from overwatering. The plant will tolerate dry seasons but never waterlogging, which will cause the leaves to start to fall.
Like any succulent plant, it stores a large amount of water in its leaves and stems 💧
Substrate and Nutrients
The portulacaria is used to poor, dry and sandy soils. Any substrate for cacti or succulents will do just fine. Ideally, add some small stones or clay pebbles to the bottom of the pot, to avoid puddles.
It is not necessary to fertilize, but if you do, better in summer and only once a year.
Why are my portulacaria leaves falling off?
Usually it is by overwatering or lack of light. Or both.
If your portulacaria is indoors or in an area with a lot of shade, the most normal thing is that the leaves fall due to an excess of water and lack of drainage. Poorly oxygenated roots + little light = poor assimilation of nutrients and water and therefore, leaf fall.
If instead it is in an area of direct sun, it may be that in the summer months, the plant drops some of its leaves as a mechanism to compensate for dehydration. In this way, you have fewer leaves to give to drink and also thus decrease photosynthesis, which would accelerate water consumption. But this problem will not be so serious, since the roots would remain healthy.
They are simple balance mechanisms that uses the plant and will not be serious, as long as they happen in a timely manner.
Finally, comment that another common cause of leaves falling occurs when we do cuttings. While developing new roots, they always drop a few leaves. I explain it in the next section ->
How to make Portulacaria cuttings
The most common and effective way to reproduce your Spekboom will be through cuttings. Seeds are hard to get and take longer to grow.
The steps are:
Cut several cuttings of about 10cm or a maximum of 3 internodes.
Ideally remove the 2 lower leaves closest to the base.
Let the cutting dry 24 hours for the cuts to heal (not necessary, but recommended).
Place the cuttings in the substrate and for the first weeks, keep it moist near an area with abundant indirect light.
In 3-4 weeks, the cuttings will have started to take roots and in 1 month they will be well rooted. Time to give them lot of light!
Most likely, some leaves will turn black or wrinkled and fall off. This is completely normal. The important thing is that we see light green shoots and leaves appear as the weeks go by.
Within the portulacaria afra there are some interesting variants:
Portulacaria Limpopo - It is a variety with somewhat larger leaves.
Portulacaria Variegata - A super cool variety, with variegated leaves, that is, with white or yellow spots on its leaves.
Portulacaria Prostrata - Used as a covering plant, it is a variety that grows wide, covering ground surfaces.
Portulacaria Aurea - Variety of very clear leaves, washed yellow in appearance.
Portulacaria Medio-Picta - Similar to the variegated form but with an electric pink stem and a large yellow spot in the center of the leaf. It is one of the most difficult to grow.
Portulacaria Afra vs Crassula Ovata
The portulacaria is often confused with the Crassula Ovata (Jade tree or plant), which is another succulent also native to the Eastern Cape of South Africa, although they do not share family or gender.
Although similar to the elephant bush, Crassula Ovata has longer, somewhat thicker and larger leaves (3 to 7cm). That is why the portulacaria is also known as the Dwarf Jade Plant.
They can finally be differentiated by looking at the stem. If the stem has a reddish or dark purple hue, it is definitely a portulacaria 👍
Curiosities and TipsThe portulacaria is a thicket and at the same time a fundamental food for various animals in South Africa.
For example, elephants “prune” the upper parts of the plant, gobbling kilos and kilos of its branches and leaves, rich in water and minerals. While goats, rhinos and kudus (antelopes) take care of the lower areas.
The density of this plant makes it possible to concentrate a large amount of water to withstand periods of drought. And at the same time, this density makes the plant more compact and can better maintain the temperature on the coldest nights.
It is said that before the advent of large-scale agriculture in South Africa, there were forest areas where the density of portulacaria was so high that a person could walk over it like if it was a carpet.
We love it and in the Mediterranean area it is great due to the similarity of climate with its original area of South Africa. In general, it is a strong plant that grows great in the bright areas of our house. And that will give a unique and green touch due to the density of its stems and leaves.
* Finally, comment that it is a plant that is widely used in the bonsai world, although there are those who do not consider it a tree as such, since technically it is not.
If you are thinking of starting to grow your Portulacaria Afra from scratch, try our Cocotakos! You will get super great results. Thanks for reading! 🌱✌🙂