Scientific: Portulacaria afra
Common: elephant plant, small leaf jade, dwarf jade
Family: Portulacaeae
Origin: South Africa

Pronounciation: Por-tu-la-CAR-ee-a AF-ra

Hardiness zones
8, 9, 12-24
USDA 9-11

Landscape Use: Accent shrub, container plant, entryways, elevated wall planters. This is definitely a succulent plant for use in intimate landscape spaces of close visual proximity that is great for most Phoenix landscape design themes. Elephant plant can be grown as a clipped informal hedge or even as a container bonsai.

Form & Character: Stiffly upright and branched and spreading, succulent, informal.

Growth Habit: Moderately vigorous and upright to 4 feet with greater spread.

Foliage/Texture: Small rounded succulent leaves on thick brittle fleshy stems, leaves simple and nearly sessile; medium fine texture.

Flowers & Fruits: Numerous, small pink flowers on terminal spikes in late spring to early summer. Flowering is promoted by environmental and/or cultural stresses such as poor nutrition or being 'pot bound' when growing in containers.

Seasonal Color: Generally none, except when flowering and the viewer is in close proximity to the plant.

Temperature: Heat loving, freeze sensitive. Will need winter protection in freeze prone areas of Phoenix.

Light: Partial shade to full sun in Phoenix, full shade intolerant.

Soil: Tolerant, but does best in a light, well-drained soil.

Watering: In Phoenix, elephant plant needs irrigating weekly during the summer, particularly if grown in a container. Otherwise during the cooler times of year irrigating is not necessary.

Pruning: Pruning requirements of elephant plant are absolutely minimal. Rare selective reduction pruning and some heading to control spread is all that is needed.

Propagation: Stem cuttings (easy)

Disease and pests: Fungal root rot if soil is chronically wet, scale, mealy bugs (especially indoors and in greenhouses)......and rabbits, javelina, and 'urban herbivores' will feast on elephant plant growing in outdoor landscapes especially when Phoenix weather has been prolonged hot and dry and water is a sought after commodity.

Additional comments: Elephant plant is a surprisingly tough, reliable, and serviceable succulent shrub when planted in the right spot. I am always amazed at how well it grows under a myriad of conditions in Phoenix. Its only weakness is freezing temperatures and 'urban herbivores'. There are several cultivated selections:

  • 'Aurea' (yellow foliage and reddish stems)
  • 'Cork Bark' (dwarf, great for bonsai)
  • 'Elephant Bush' (large and vigorous to 12 feet tall)
  • forma macrophylla (larger leaves)
  • 'Green' (dwarf and rounded to only 12 inches tall, green foliage and red stems)
  • 'Mediopicta' (white variegation)
  • 'Oliphant' (larger rounded leaves, more upright growth habit to 6 feet tall)
  • 'Skyscraper' (narrow and upright to 8 feet tall)
  • 'Prostrata' (dwarf cultivar that is great for a small-scale landscape ground cover)
  • 'Variegata' (yellow variegation)
  • Yes, elephants do munch on this succulent and other things!