A Gardening Journal

Elephant Food

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Here's a jade plant look-alike that should be in everyone's windowsill.   Not least, who could resist the common name?  Elephant food.  Seriously.  This plant's a favored pachyderm snack.  Growth can be full as well as colorful; here's that same pot enjoying the Summer on the terrace.

 

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Elephant food couldn't be easier to overwinter, either.  Bright light and neglect are the key.  See "How to handle it" below.  This is one of my larger specimens, sitting out the Winter quietly in the greenhouse.

 

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This plant is more upright, almost tree-like.

 

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The thick branching gives even young plants a venerable look. 

 

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Oh, yes:  Elephant food?  Indeed.  Portulacaria is native to Africa, and can grow in large as well as juicy colonies.

 

 

Here's how to grow this colorful succulent shrub:

 

Latin Name

Portulacia afra 'Variegata'

Common Name

Variegated Elephant Food Ways

Family

Portulacaceae, the Purslane family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen succulent bush. 

Hardiness

Zones 9 -11.

Habit

Very similar to that of jade plants: Upright, multi-stemmed, and broad.

 

Rate of Growth

Medium to fast.

Size in ten years

Growing in-ground under ideal conditions, three to five feet tall and wide.  Ultimately to twice that.  Shorter as well as slower in containers.

Texture

Lively, thanks to the green-and-white variegated leaves and the burgundy of the young stems.  Dense but also open, in that plenty of stem is shown among the profuse foliage.

Grown for

its foliage and stems: Small pads like miniature leaves of jade plant, with cream around the perimeter and green in the center.  Younger stems are a gorgeously-contrasting soft burgundy. 

 

its toughness:  Portulacaria is very comfortable with considerable heat and drought; in-ground it recovers quickly from light or even severe frost.  Containered plants can go for months without watering.  Plants are resistant to fire as well as deer.

 

its appeal to elephants:  No, really.  Where both elephants and Portulacaria are native, southwestern Africa, the straight species grows so profusely, and recovers from grazing in only a few weeks, that it can be the majority of an elephant's diet.  Elephants graze the plant from the top-down, which actually fosters reproduction because the grazing scatters a lot of twigs and even branches, which quickly root and help expand as well as thicken the colony.  Also, grazed plants become fuller and fuller at ground level, which traps the plant's own fallen leaves as well as wind-blown debris from other plants, and so helps localize organic matter for breakdown into the soil.  Unfortunately, Portulacaria is also attractive to goats, who graze plants from the bottom-up, and so soon decrease or even obliterate the colony.     

Flowering season

Portulacaria flowers in Spring, but flowering is extremely rare outside its native African range. 

Color combinations

The palette of 'Variegata'—pale green, creamy white, and soft burgundy—is the universal mixer.  Because of the softness of each hue, though, I would only associate with other softly-colored plants, whatever their colors.  The only saturated color I'd bring into the picture would be burgundy or dark green. 

Partner plants

Lighter-foliaged plants look even more interesting when juxtaposed with darker-foliaged ones.  Small leaves look better near large leaves.  And everything looks better backed by a dark evergreen hedge.  In-ground, then, it would be hard to top the combination of 'Variegata' with inky-purple Aeonium arboreum 'Schwartzkopf'—literally, "black head" tree aeonium.  If your Portulacaria is in a container, you can associated it with all kinds of plants just for the Summer.  If the plant and container are large enough, put the pot on a stand on the sunny side of purple-leaved shrubs such as Cotinus 'Velvet Cloak', Weigela 'My Monet', or Acer palmatum 'Red Pygmy'.

Where to use it in your garden

Unless your climate is similarly to that of Santa Barbara or Rome or Namibia—hot, with regular drought as well as occasional frost—you'll be growing Portulacaria afra 'Variegata' in a pot.  In-ground, it's a dense shrub, a clipped hedge, or even a large-scale groundcover, too.

Culture

Full sun, well-drained and even dry soil, excellent drainage, especially in the Winter.

How to handle it: The Basics

Portulacaria is easy in containers.  You can use any potting soil as long as it's free-draining; mix half-and-half with sand if you're in doubt.  Set the pot where it will enjoy all possible sun and heat.  As long as there hasn't been rain, you can water weekly; you can even fertilize monthly.  Stop fertilizing by September, and when the high heat of Summer has passed, stop watering, too.  (It's fine to let the pot continue to receive water from rain.)  Bring the pot indoors before frost, and place it in your brightest available light.  Unless your indoor environment is unusually bright and warm, you should withhold water until you see that the lower leaf-pads are shriveling.  This could be a wait of several months.  By February the days will have lengthened noticeably, and it will be fine to water once.  In March, you might be able to water twice; but test the soil with your fingertip first, to be sure that it feels truly dry.  If you can, noodle into the soil with your finger, down to the first joint.  If the soil feels cooler than it did at the surface, that's because it's moisture.  Don't water until the soil feels dry an inch deep.

 

Don't return the pot to your garden until the weather has settled into gentle and consistent warmth; your Portulacaria will not look kindly on a day of chilly drizzle, and will be substantially injured by an overnight frost.  It will recover, but will take several months to do so.

 

Portulacaria can grow wider than tall, especially when it gets more water.  Plants can spill over the side of their pots enough to work as hanging baskts. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

If you're gardening where the climate is hot and nearly frost-free, Portulacaria can be part of your in-ground landscaping.  The plants handle blazing sun and extended drought with ease, and also recover from severe, if brief, frosts.  At both extremes, they're much tougher than jade plants.  The straight species of Portulacaria afra grows much larger—to twelve or even fifteen feet—and can be pruned into high and thick hedges.  Plant in fast-draining soil, and also on a slope, no matter how slight, as extra insurance.  Prune in Spring; plants resprout quickly, even from radical take-downs.

Quirks or special cases

With its dense and easily-pruned growth, plus its thick and "prematurely-arboreal" trunking and branches, Portulacaria can also be grown as bonsai.  As a succulent, small root-mass is typical, so it's comfortable growing in the shallow tray-like bonsai "pots."  And unlike more familiar bonsai subjects, such as maples, ginkos, and broadleaf evergreens, Portulacaria is highly  drought-tolerant and therefore doesn't need the day-to-day attention to watering.

Downsides

None.

Variants

Portulacaria is a small but choice genus.  Everyone is already growing its most cosmopolitan member, P. oleraceae, which is naturalized world-wide.  Far from being a weed, the entire plant is a salad-green, and can be a beneficial companion plant to vegetables.

 

P. pygmaea is a bit smaller than P. afra, P. armiana a bit bigger.  P. afra has what seem (to me, at least) to be some very seductive varients, including 'Aurea', with new foliage that's yellow; 'Medio-Picta', with variegation only down the center of each leaf, and with especially bright red stems; and 'Prostrata', with a low and spreading habit.  I want them all.

 

Availability

On-line and at retailers who specialize in succulents.

Propagation

Portulacaria roots extremely easily from cuttings.

Native habitat

Portulacaria afra is native to Namibia.

 

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