I have really come to enjoy working with this species as bonsai, and find that I have become something of an apostle for it-recommending it as a first tree for new bonsai growers, and encouraging experienced growers who have not done so to give it a try.
Portulacaria afra The scientific names come from the plant’s marked similarity to Purslane (the genus Portulaca) to which it is related. Afra because it is native to Africa.
It goes by many common names: Dwarf Jade, Elephant bush, in Afrikans it is called ‘Spekboom’ (porkbush). In its native region the it is referred to as isiCococo (Zulu); iGqwanitsha (Xhoza).
Distribution and habitat: eastern parts of South Africa from the Eastern Cape northwards, crossing the national border into Mozambique. It thrives in warm regions in poor and sandy soils as well as rocky outcrops.
Although often called Dwarf Jade, it is not related to the familiar Jade plant (Crassula arborescens) though they share a habitat and ecological niche. The other common name elephant bush is accurate-it is closely associated with the elephant, as a source of food. Although the plant does produce seed, it reproduces vegetatively as well. As elephants feed any uneaten shoots and branches that fall to the ground have a high rate of rooting. The plant and the animal have evolved together and their survival strategy depends on each other. At Addo National Park, elephants feed heavily on the plant with no outside competition, and Portulacaria thrives and is wide spread. Outside the park the plants are eaten by goats that eat the plant from ground level upwards preventing the plant from spreading vegetatively. Consequently these plants must rely solely on seed to proliferate the species which often proves difficult in such a dry climate. It is observed that outside the park the plant is becoming sparse as a result of overgrazing and poor regeneration.
Aside from elephants and goats, the plant is readily consumed by many animals both domestic and wild, and that includes humans. The leaves have a sour or tart flavor, and can be eaten fresh or cooked in various ways. Aside from food, traditional medical uses include the increasing of breast milk by lactating mothers. The leaves are used to quench thirst, sucking a leaf is used to treat exhaustion, dehydration and heat stroke. Crushed leaves can be rubbed on blisters and corns on the feet to provide relief. The leaves are chewed as a treatment for sore throat and mouth infections while the astringent juice is used for soothing ailments of the skin such as pimples, rashes and insect stings. The juice is also used as an antiseptic and as a treatment for sunburn. The honey made from the flowers of Portulacaria is said to be “unsurpassable in flavour and texture” by one reference.
The plant is widely grown around the world, both as potted plant indoors and outside. It can be used as a hedge and will take shearing. It’s desert origins make it able to withstand less than ideal living conditions, so it has no trouble withstanding the dry conditions inside the average home. Several named varieties are available, including a prostrate/weeping form, and several variegated types.
All of the proceeding background may seem merely interesting, but look at some of the prominent clues, and you can see why this plant is a stellar candidate for bonsai: it comes from a dry habitat and is not fussy about water; it evolved to grow in what we use for bonsai potting mix, and it takes pruning well-what term would mean better than well.
As a bonsai, this plant can be grown in most every style. It’s natural form is an upright tree, but multiple trunk or cascading styles can be done. It’s leaf form is smaller and more tree like the very similar true Jade plant, which with its smooth trunk and large plump leaves never makes a convincingly tree like image to my mind. Portulacaria responds to bonsai cultivation with small leaves, short internodes and lovely, well defined foliage masses. Sizes from shohin on up to two or four man are possible and often seen, though the logistics of providing light and warm temperatures in northern latitudes means the largest sizes are best left to those who can let the plant remain outdoors all year-unless you have a few energetic interns and a green house!
They bud back from nodes fairly readily. If stumps are left during pruning, they will eventually dry out and fall off the plant. Portulacaria is easily developed as bonsai with clip and grow techniques, and once an attractive profile is reached they should be pinched relentless relentlessly to maintain the look. They will develop nice tight pads of tiny leaves. New growth is fleshy, as would be expected for a succulent, though older growth becomes quite solid, though it never truly lignifies. Most sources advise clip and grow techniques for styling, but the plant will respond to wire. Older branches can be a bit brittle, and individual leaves must be avoided.
Portulacaria can be propagated with almost no effort. Sprigs of just a few nodes will strike roots, as will quite large branches. In South Africa the plant is used for land reclamation projects, and pretty massive branches are planted in place and grow with a high success rate(more proof of how easily the plant reproduces from cuttings, and how well it will grow in the poorest of soils). It will also root from single leaves! This ease of rooting means that starting new bonsai from the well branched trimmings from older bonsai means an endless supply of new plants-simply place to cutting in bonsai soil in the bonsai pot it will occupy and wait. Some sources advise a drying out period, especially for larger cutting to develop a ‘scab’ on the cut end, and use of rooting hormone is also advocated in some sources and claim as unnecessary by other. Personal experience shows rooting hormone is not needed, and that if you have the time and patience, a waiting period with cutting is worth doing but certainly not a necessity. I have seen that after pruning a Portulacaria the fallen clippings can lay on the workbench an amazing long time with out withering, and make viable cuttings.
Portulacria are heavy feeders. Content to sit and tread water, so to speak, in poor soil, if fertilized at low levels frequently, they will grow like gangbusters-if in enough sun. I give mine full strength fish emulsion several times a week in summer growing season. Since they are getting loads of sun AND are pinched, they do not grow leggy. Fertilizing at that rate in winter would produce grossly etiolated plants. These are plants that can take all day, unrelenting, merciless all day sun that would shrivel a juniper and love it.
Watering these plants requires some caution. Outside in high summer, during their active growth ( which is very, very active!) they can be watered like any other bonsai. Indoors, with less light and heat, living at a slower pace, they can be overwatered shockingly easily.
Overwatered Portulacaria start to drop leaves. Growers who fail to observe there is a problem, and who keep dumping on the water will end up with a plant that has defoliated its self and rotten roots as well. Even from this sad circumstance the plant is tough enough to come back if watered judiciously. I’ve fought with mine every winter I have had them, and Ive finally learned to water much, much less than you think they need during the winter.
That caution with moisture extends to repotting time. These plants, like most tropicals, can be repotted anytime, but once the task is completed, skip one familiar step-Don’t Water! Adam Lavigne recommends this rule, and I agree- Don’t water until you see the plant putting out new growth, otherwise you risk a serious case of rot. His logic is that unlike ‘regular’ plants, where moisture encourages new roots, succulents send out roots to look for moisture. Starting repotted plants-or cutting-dry encourages/forces them to throw out new roots.
Though it is a tropical, it can stand a bit of cold, like most desert dwellers. It can survive to freezing, though it may sulk and temperatures lower still may damage the plant. San Marcos Growers,a California wholesaler reports them as hardy to 25 degrees from practical experience, and plants survived a bout of -20 degrees ( with stem damage).
If you want even more information about this tremendous plant, look here:
Also, Florida bonsai artist Adam Lavigne uses the species frequently, check out his excellent blog: