How to Care for Portulacaria afra, or Mini Jade

Portulacaria afra is a wonderful, succulent houseplant that grows relatively quickly and is very low maintenance.

It looks a lot like the classic Jade plant (Crassula ovata), but with smaller leaves and redder stems, which is the reason it is commonly called Mini Jade or Dwarf Jade.

Despite the confusion, it is actually a different plant in a completely separate family and has some incredibly unique qualities.

Today’s post will cover more about this wonderful, low-maintenance succulent, including where it is found in the wild, various varieties that are available, how to grow it, and even how it’s being used to fight climate change (seriously!).

Table of Contents

Where is Portulacaria afra native to?

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Portulacaria afra overlooking gorgeous South Africa, Photo by: Christiaan Vilojoen, iNaturalist, Source

Porticularia afra is native to Southern Africa and is commonly referred to as Spekboom there.

It is also commonly labeled as Elephant Bush, Mini or Dwarf Jade, and Pork Bush within the houseplant industry.

P. afra can grow to 12 feet or higher outdoors and develops a bush or shrub-like appearance with soft, woody stems and succulent leaves.

This bush is an important source of food for elephants, black rhinos, and other herbivores.

Elephant bush is very good at self-propagating. Plant parts that drop out of the mouths of elephants and rhinos while snacking on these bushes can then root and become new plants.

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Portulacaria afra, Photo by Steven Molteno, iNaturalist, Source

Portulacaria afra is also eaten by people:

The foliage is edible – and is commonly eaten in southern Africa, usually in salads or soups to add a sour flavor –

and was traditionally used medicinally for a variety of minor ailments.

It is widely browsed by domestic and wild animals because of its ability to remain succulent despite periods of searing heat and drought, and is a favorite food of tortoises.

Susan Mahr, “Elephant Bush, Portulacaria afra“, University of Wisconsin-Madison Horticulture, Source
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Portulacaria afra, Photo by: Craig Peter, iNaturalist, Source

Portulacaria afra produces clusters of pink flowers, though I don’t think they regularly bloom indoors. Here’s a photo of their cute little flowers:

Portulacaria afra flowers
Portulacaria afra flowers, Photo by: Philmarin, Wikipedia

What is the difference between Portulacaria afra and Crassula ovata (classic Jade)?

Portulacaria afra (dwarf jade/ elephant bush/ spekboom) is from a completely different family of plants than Crassula ovata (jade).

Portulacaria afra sports red stems and smaller leaves than Crassula ovata.

Also, P. afra stems are super rubbery and moveable, unlike C. ovata whose stems will snap off with pressure. To see an example of this, check out the video below from Debra Lee Baldwin.

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How is Portulacaria afra being used to fight climate change in South Africa?

Over the past decade, farmers in South Africa have found the combination of drought and rising temperatures due to climate change to be particularly challenging.

Scientists have determined that the largest contributor to the rising temperatures around the globe is the rising level of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

Why does CO2 increase temperatures? “Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. […] Unlike oxygen or nitrogen (which make up most of our atmosphere), greenhouse gases absorb that heat and release it gradually over time, like bricks in a fireplace after the fire goes out.” (Rebecca Lindsey, Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, Climate.gov)

Some greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is positive because it helps to provide warmth for plants and animals, like us. However, when the levels of CO2 increase to an imbalanced amount, then the temperatures around the globe begin to increase as well, causing all sorts of issues including farming obstacles.

So what does this have to do with Partulacaria afra?

Well, Portulacaria afra (spekboom) used to be much more widely and densely spread throughout Southern Africa, helping to provide shade and food for other plants and animals.

These thickets also absorbed large amounts of carbon dioxide.

“Because of spekboom’s remarkable growth rate, its rate of carbon capture can rival that of tropical forests,” Sarah-Jane Paviour writes in her 2014 thesis on the properties of spekboom.

Alexander Matthews, How shrubs can help solve climate change, BBC, published Feb 3, 2020, Source
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Portulacaria afra, Photo by Steven Molteno, iNaturalist, Source

Using this information, farmers decided, with government support, to try to regrow the spekboom thickets that once proliferated the area.

The hope is that Portulacaria afra will help to support plant and animal life once again by providing food and shade while also positively affecting the climate through carbon dioxide absorption.

Spekboom is also a great choice of plant for this project because it is drought and heat tolerant, which allows it to withstand harsh conditions when many other plants cannot.

Additionally, it is an inexpensive and efficient plant to use because Portulacaria afra is so easy to root from cuttings and so quick to grow once rooted.

But, while hardy, spekboom is certainly not invincible.

The plant used to be a dominant species in the subtropical thicket biome that, by one estimate, used to cover over a million hectares of South Africa. Over the past 150 years, this has drastically shrunk because of persistent overgrazing by sheep and goats.
[…]
With degraded thicket in dry areas widespread in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Madagascar, there is the potential for similar kinds of indigenous plant restoration to replicated elsewhere – again, at a fraction of the cost of restoring forests.

Alexander Matthews, How shrubs can help solve climate change, BBC, published Feb 3, 2020, Source

This project is often referred to as Carbon Farming. To read more about carbon farming in South Africa, click here to open a PDF available through the Republic of South Africa government site.

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Portulacaria afra, Photo by: Craig Peter, iNaturalist, Source

How do you care for Portulacaria afra?

Portulacaria afra Care Summary

In-depth care is below this chart

Humidity:Normal household humidity levels
Light:Bright indirect light to direct sun
Pot:Any pot with a drainage hole
Potting Mix:A well-draining mix
Water:Water when dry
Fertilizer:Fertilize during active growth

Temperature and Humidity

P. afra can tolerate pretty much any humidity level. It can also tolerate extreme heat and brief periods of frost.

However, it prefers the same household temperatures we do.

Light preference

Give your elephant bush as much light as you can offer. It CAN grow when receiving at least a couple of hours of direct sunlight but will be even happier with higher amounts of direct sun.

Potting mix preference

This plant wants a super well-draining mix. It is used to poor soil conditions that do not retain water for long.

Use a succulent & cacti mix or, even better, create a 50/50 blend of potting mix & an aerating substance like perlite, pumice, horticultural sand, etcetera.

Pot/Planter preference

Any pot that has a drainage hole, assuming you are using a well-draining potting mix, should be fine. The important part is that this plant never sits in standing water.

If you are concerned about your plant possibly sitting too wet, a terracotta pot would be perfect since it wicks moisture out of the potting mix.

When does Portulacaria afra prefer to be watered

Portulacaria afra prefers to be watered when the potting mix has completely dried out.

This plant is equipped for some drought, but not equipped for being wet consistently.

However, if you allow your plant to be dry for too long, the leaves will begin to look a bit dull, then droop and begin to fall off.

So, while it can tolerate some neglect, it will start to suffer at some point.

When does Portulacaria afra need to be fertilized

Because Portulacaria afra is used to poor conditions, it needs little nutrients to survive.

However, occasionally fertilizing your plant throughout the year will help your plant to remain healthy and vibrant.

I fertilize my succulent plants a few times throughout the growing season with diluted organic fertilizer (probably around half strength or even less).

Caution should be taken if using chemical fertilizers with a higher concentration of nutrients. You may want to dilute chemical fertilizers to a quarter strength and choose one designed for cacti/succulents.

This will help to ensure you do not accidentally overfertilize your plant.

What are the varieties of Portulacaria afra?

This is probably not an all-inclusive list as there are often varieties that I haven’t heard of yet or don’t know enough about to include here, but I will list all of the ones I do know about below!

Portulacaria afra, Classic Green

This is the classic, fast-growing succulent that is most often used to create bonsai.

Portulacaria afra ‘Decumbent’

Decumbent is a creeping variety of Portulacaria afra that can be grown as more of a ground cover outdoors or as a hanging basket plant indoors.

I believe this plant is also commonly called P. afra ‘Minima’ and P. afra ‘Prostrata’

Portulacaria afra variegata, Rainbow Bush

Portulacaria afra variegata is commonly called Rainbow bush because the white, creamy variegation can blush with ample sunlight, giving it a rainbow of colors. This one has variegation on the outer edges of the leaves.

Portulacaria afra medio-picta, Mid-Stripe Rainbow Bush

Portulacaria afra medio-picta is sort of like the reverse of the Rainbow bush, where the variegation is in the middle of the leaf with green edges surrounding it.

Portulacaria afra aurea

Aurea sports neon yellow leaves that darken a little as they mature, but never become as green as the classic P. afra.

This is the plant that I’ve seen the least often currently, but is being grown by one of the big plant suppliers in the states so maybe it will pop up more locally.

Portulacaria afra macrophylla

Portulacaria afra macrophylla has larger leaves than the original plant.

What are some common issues that Portulacaria afra may face?

Pests

Portulacaria afra is fairly pest resistant, but can have all the common pests. Probably the most common pest on P. afra is mealybugs.

Leaf drop

Portulacaria afra will drop leaves if overwatered and underwater.

Overwatered leaves may often be smelly, mushy, and discolored.

Underwatered leaves may be dull, thin, and possibly crispy.

Lanky, stretched growth

Lanky, stretched growth is usually because the plant isn’t getting enough light to produce thick, robust growth.

Thin, wrinkly leaves

Wrinkly leaves are usually due to underwatering.

Stems turning black and mushy

This is a product of stem rot which usually happens when the plant is overwatered or so severely underwatered that the roots have died.

Important Note: Overwatering can be the product of watering a plant too frequently, but it can also be the product of allowing a plant to sit super dry for too long.

The plant’s roots actually begin to dry up and die from drought. Then you provide your plant with a thorough watering and it doesn’t have healthy roots to use the water up in a timely manner anymore.

The dried-up, dead roots then begin to rot when exposed to water and spread root rot to the rest of the plant. This causes the plant to collapse in much the same manner as it would if you were to water it too frequently.

So how do you avoid both of these issues? Check your plant frequently to see if its potting mix has dried from top to bottom. Once it is fully dry, give it a good thorough watering.

A cheap way to check whether your plant is ready for watering is to:

  1. Use a chopstick to go down the side of the pot to the bottom. Pull the chopstick out. If its clean and dry, time to water. If it comes out with some moist mix on it, wait longer before watering.
  2. Pick up the pot to assess whether it is light or heavy. Heavy means it still has water. Light means it is dry and ready for a drink. This technique works well when using standard terracotta pots and plastic pots. It does take a few tries to learn how heavy and light your pot typically becomes, but it is super easy once you’ve tried it out a few times.

If you think you’ve been underwatering your plant, don’t give the plant a thorough watering since it can’t use that water effectively due to root damage.

Instead, give the plant a little bit of water periodically, when dry, to help it begin to bounce back and grow new roots. I try to add only enough to wet a fourth to a third of the potting mix.

After the plant has been receiving a little water for several weeks, then you may begin to slowly increase the amount of water. It does take time, but it also works! I’ve done this with several of my plants successfully. It just requires a little patience and love.

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