Portulacaria afra: Care Tips, Experience, and More with Elephant Bush or Mini Jade

Portulacaria afra, Elephant Bush, or Mini Jade is an adorable little succulent that makes a great houseplant.

However, I must admit this is one plant I’ve managed to torture and bring to the brink of death many times.

And it is through nearly losing this plant over and over that I can now more successfully grow it and share some tips with you!

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What you will read about Portulacaria afra is that it is a super resilient plant that can go long periods of time without water and survive. And that is all true.

For this reason, it is used to help fight climate change and feed both wildlife and people in Southern Africa. You can read more about that in a previous post I wrote here.

Portularia afra in Africa
Portularia afra growing prolifically in South Africa, Photo by: Craig Peter, iNaturalist, Linked Here

But surviving harsh conditions doesn’t always make for the most beautiful plant, it makes for a warrior with scars and imperfections to show for the battles it has won. Portulacaria afra is most definitely a warrior.

So if we replicate those harsh conditions in our homes (not watering the plant for long periods of time, never providing fertilizer, giving the plant an extremely high or low light condition), then we are going to have a plant that looks like the warrior that it is.

And that is precisely what happened to me – I brought home P. afra and then proceeded to stick it in lots of light… either in a West-facing window with hot afternoon sun or under a strong grow light.

Then I didn’t water it for weeks at a time. I thought I was doing the plant a favor as that is what succulents want, right?

No, not really. I’ve come to learn that these are the conditions (hot sun and long periods of drought) that succulents can survive. Not necessarily the conditions that will help succulents to THRIVE.

But, here I was growing P. afra in high light and not watering it for weeks. Without fail, the plant would begin to drop leaves and look increasingly sad over time. It didn’t die though.

I would notice the change for the worse and begin to give it more attention, water it more regularly, nurse it back to health, and then think: Great, now I can go back to what it actually wants: neglect.

Seems obvious what the problem is when I write it here, but I promise you it wasn’t obvious to me then!

Unsurprisingly, the past would repeat itself. The plant would decline and I would need to nurse it back to health.

So, it turns out I was the problem. I corrected my care and I now have the thriving little tree pictured below! I’ll share with you exactly how I care for it so you can have your own happy little plant too. 🙂

Side note: The little wood slice next to P. afra is from a tree behind our house.

We have a gargantuan pine tree that had massive branches overhanging a swingset our kids played on. Recently the tree was trimmed for safety and those branches were removed.

My wife found that little wood slice after the tree trim and collected it for me, knowing I love little momentoes like that. I added it next to this little tree. 🙂

Portulacaria afra
Portulacaria afra

How I Care for Portulacaria afra

Light Requirements for Portulacaria afra

I kept it in high light. The elephant bush, Portulacaria afra, still likes lots of light as a houseplant. Low light isn’t a great option for this plant.

It’s been successfully growing for me in a West-facing window where it receives direct sun in the afternoon and I’ve previously grown it in a South-facing window, pulled back about 2 feet, with direct sun for most of the day.

Please keep in mind that I do live in Michigan in the United States where we experience long dark Winters and relatively mild Summers, so if you live closer to the equator with a much hotter sun you may find different results when growing your plants.

Water requirements and rehab after neglecting Portulacaria afra

Because I hadn’t been watering it regularly, a lot of the roots had dried up and died back. So if I drenched the pot, there wouldn’t be a lot of roots to take up that water.

Instead of drenching the entire pot, I began to give it small amounts of water (a tablespoon or so) every few days when it was dry again. I did this so the plant wouldn’t be wet for long, but would have water to start regrowing those roots.

The product of giving it tiny drinks of water was the regrowth of roots, no more foliage loss, and eventually new foliage began to emerge.

After a month or so of tiny drinks regularly, I started drenching the pot as I would normally have until the water ran out of the drainage holes.

Then I would wait for the pot to dry and repeat the process. I would not let the pot sit dry for long like I would previously.

Normal Watering Requirements for Plants that WERE NOT Underwatered

If you didn’t neglect your plant as I did, you could simply water the plant thoroughly until the water ran out of the drainage holes in the pot and then let the pot dry and water it again.

I notice that if I wait a bit long to drench the pot again, the mature foliage on the plant will lose its glossy texture and look a bit dull or matte.

I’ve come to realize that many plants do this and it can be a useful way to detect a plant that is in need of water before wilt happens. It’s best to catch the plant prior to it losing its gloss, but much better than waiting for wilt or, even worse, die back and leaf drop.

Pot and potting mix requirements for Portulacaria afra

I currently have my plant in a terracotta pot with a mixture of houseplant soil and pumice. Probably a 50/50 mix. It’s doing super well in this mix provided that I pay attention to its watering needs.

Fertilizer for Portulacaria afra

Any succulent fertilizer can be used according to the directions during the year. Be sure to never exceed the directions on the container. I often use less than the recommended amount to ensure I do not overfertilize.

You could even get away with not fertilizing for part of the year and be fine, but you do want to fertilize most of the time for the healthiest looking plant.

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Final thoughts on Portulacaria afra and a couple of other varieties I have started growing since

I’m happy to say that my Portulacaria afra now grows quite prolifically and I regularly prune it into a tree-like shape, somewhat reminiscent of the bonsai trees that you can find Portulacaria afra in.

This particular plant was not a bonsai when I purchased it, but I think I’ve done a decent job creating a little tree considering I have little experience doing such a thing.

Regardless, this plant makes me so incredibly happy and I’m very glad I didn’t lose it.

I’ve since added 2 other types, a variegated version and a smaller leafed variety with the name, ‘Lilliput.’

I found both at a local big box store for just a couple of dollars, worth the experiment to see if I can keep them thriving as I have with the older plant now.

P. afra ‘Lilliput’ has wonderful woody-like stems that look shrubby or foresty. I really enjoy it with its tiny leaves.

The variegated variety I have tried growing before without success. I’m positive I’ve underwatered it as well.

Hopefully, I will do better this time around. People also grow this plant into a bonsai tree regularly. Perhaps I will attempt another little tree or just allow this one to go wild. I’ve seen this particular type of variegated P. afra be called rainbow bush, which I love.

There are many other varieties not pictured in this post with different growth habits, leaf sizes, and color forms. I’m not going to attempt to list them here. But just know that there is more to explore if you feel inspired to do so!

Overall, Portularia afra is a fantastic plant for beginners and experts alike, in my opinion. Because of their resilient nature, you can make some hefty mistakes and the plant will hang in there and be a comeback queen if you give it an opportunity to do so.

You can’t ask for much more in a houseplant, at least not in my book. Happy growing and see you next week!

Where to buy a Portulacaria afra online?

There are lots of places to buy Elephant bush online and in person. However, the shop I would love to recommend this week is PlantasiesPNW on Etsy* (link opens to Etsy shop)

Oh my goodness, I love this shop so much. They mostly sell succulent-type plants. The plants are unique and healthy and absolutely gorgeous.

Many of them have a bonsai-like vibe about them, which is something that may appeal to you. The grower also loves miniature bonsai-type plants (be still my heart) so you can find some really wonderful things here.

At the time of publishing this post, they have Portulacaria afra available.

This isn’t a huge grower or shop, so I’m not sure that the shop will have them available for long. But I’ll tell ya what, if you are looking for some wonderful plants from a wonderful grower that is unique and healthy, this is a great place to check out.

They aren’t paying me to say this, by the way. I just like them. A LOT.

Click here to take a look* (link opens to Etsy shop)

*This link is through the Etsy affiliate program (there is no cost to you to use this link). Every penny counts! If I make anything from this link, it goes directly to supporting this blog. Thank you to anyone who takes the time to read and support A Natural Curiosity.

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