by Renee O'Connell
Originally published in Garden Compass magazine
Used with permission.
Portulacaria afra 'variegata'
In the area of South Africa known as the Karoo Succulent Biome dwells a very xeriphytic succulent, Portulacaria afra, or "Spekboom", as it is known by the native people. "Spekboom" (known popularly as "Elephant Bush") is essential to many browsing animals, including kudu and elephants because of its ability to remain succulent despite periods of searing heat and drought. The relationship of the "Elephant Bush" with the elephant is actually quite symbiotic. As the elephant tears branches from the arborescent Portulacaria, stripping them of tender leaves, the leafless branches are then tossed aside, rooting at a later time to create new thickets known as "Spekboomvelds". This symbiosis is crucial for the Portulacaria as the biome is so extremely arid that Portulacaria seed has great difficulty germinating in its native habitat.
There are several forms of Portulacaria afra in cultivation, including the "Elephant Bush", and the "Rainbow Bush" (Portulacaria afra variegata). The "Rainbow Bush" is a beautiful variegate with creamy leaves which have a light green center stripe, and a tinge of majenta on the very edge of the leaf. The "Rainbow Bush" is an excellent complement to Spekboom as it has a more prostrate, spreading habit than "Spekboom", and can even be used as a hanging basket. The "Elephant Bush", in contrast, is more arborescent, with small, rounded emerald leaves that seem to shimmer in the sunlight. Both the "Rainbow Bush" and the "Elephant Bush" make excellent bonsai subjects, with mahogany stems that thicken quickly, and petite leaves giving an Oriental ambiance.
Portulacaria afra are somewhat analogous to the Jade plant in morphology, with thickening trunks and rounded, shiny leaves, but have the additional attributes of being faster growing and somewhat more cold hardy. As they can attain the height of 6' or more, these "Spekboom" can be planted as screens to provide privacy, or trimmed and shaped as hedges or topiaries. "Spekboom" is an excellent choice for landscapes and gardens as it performs equally well in xeriphytic scapes, or intermixed with bedding plants in frequently watered flowerbeds.
And who knows... it might just be good to have a Portulacaria or two in your garden just in case some day a hungry elephant tiptoes into your yard!