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Products > Portulacaria afra
Portulacaria afra - Elephant's Food

[2nd Image]
Habit and Cultural Information
Category: Succulent
Family: Didiereaceae
Origin: South Africa (Africa)
Evergreen: Yes
Flower Color: Lavender
Bloomtime: Summer
Height: 8-12 feet
Width: 4-6 feet
Exposure: Sun or Shade
Summer Dry: Yes
Irrigation (H2O Info): Low Water Needs
Winter Hardiness: 25-30 F
Portulacaria afra (Elephant Food) - An upright growing plant (8-12 feet tall) with reddish brown stems and 1/2 inch long emerald green succulent leaves. This plant really needs drier conditions than Southern California usually has to reliably produce flowers but after a dry winter, and where plants are not irrigated, it can produce tiny pale lavender flowers in summer months. Plant in sun or shade with little or no supplemental irrigation. Hardy to at least 25 F undamaged after 3 nights to this temperature in 2007 and plants survived with some stem damage the cold Christmas 1990 temperatures below 20 F. Makes a great drought tolerant foundation plant and can be kept almost any size with pruning. This species in native to South Africa where it grows in warm sites on rocky slopes with other succulents in the eastern parts of South Africa from the Eastern Cape northwards into KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, Mpumalanga and the Limpopo Province and further north into Mozambique. The genus name is a combination of Portulaca (a genus name) and 'arius' meaning "pertaining to" in reference to the similarity of plants in this genus to those in the genus Portulaca which itself comes from the Latin word 'portula' meaning "a small door" in reference to the fruits which open with a small lid. Long considered to be in the Portulacaceae, more recent molecular phylogenetic studies have indicated that Portulacaria should rightfully be place in the Didiereaceae, which was otherwise entirely found in Madagascar. The specific epithet is in reference to the plants coming from Africa. Though usually commonly called Elephant Food, another common English name is Porkbush and the Afrikaans name is Spekboom, which translates from two words, 'spek' meaning "bacon" and 'boom' meaning "tree" as Bacon Tree. The names come from the fact that the leaves are edible, though with a sour flavor. It is widely browsed by wild and domestic animals in Africa and while it is touted as a favorite food of elephants, ostriches and cattle and can even be consumed by humans, it seems to be less palatable to deer and rabbits in our California gardens go figure. Occasionally this plant is also called "Dwarf Jade", a name that we think is confusing since this plant is not that closely related to the Jade plant, Crassula ovata. Portulacaria afra has also been used to bind soil to prevent erosion and is noted as a very efficient plant for absorbing atmospheric carbon (CO2) and is described as a "carbon sponge", using both the more common C-3 pathway for carbon fixation in the photosynthesis process and, when the temperatures rise, also used the Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) pathway that is found in many other succulents. Besides this species we also grow the following cultivars; Portulacaria afra forma macrophylla , a large leafed form, Portulacaria afra 'Skyscraper', a narrow upright form, Portulacaria afra 'Cork Bark' a corky bark form great for bonsai use, Portulacaria afra 'Low Form' a prostrate form green leaves, Portulacaria afra 'Aurea', a prostrate plant with yellow new growth, Portulacaria afra 'Variegata' an upright plant with white variegated leaves and Portulacaria afra 'Medio-picta' a stunning low growing plant with pink stems and leaves that have a wide central cream stripe. All are great drought tolerant plants useful in the landscape or as container specimens.  The information on this page is based on our research that has been conducted in our nursery library and from online sources as well as from observations made of this plant as it grows in the nursery, in the nursery's garden, and in other gardens where it has been observed. We also incorporate comments received from others and always appreciate getting feedback of any kind from those who have additional information, particularly if this information is contrary to what we have written or includes additional cultural tips that might aid others in growing  Portulacaria afra.