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What is an Elephant Bush?

By J.M. Densing
Updated May 17, 2024
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The elephant bush is a bush-like succulent plant that grows in a variety of sizes depending on its environment. It's also known as elephant food, elephant plant, spekboom, and by its scientific name Portulacaria afra. The plant grows in the wild in Africa, where it serves as a food source for elephants. It is also commonly cultivated as an indoor houseplant and can be used in the Japanese art of bonsai.

In the wild where it has room to grow, the elephant bush often grows to a height of 12 feet (4 m) or more and spreads out over a wide area. When grown as a houseplant, it is usually much smaller since it will only reach a size that its environment can support. It tends to grow to fit its container, and the final plant size can be controlled simply by the size of the pot the elephant bush is planted in.

In many ways, the plant resembles a small tree or bush, with reddish brown stems that have a woody appearance and branch out in many directions. The leaves are smooth and rounded, with a plump look, like small pillows. The leaves have extremely high water content, and are the location of fluid storage for this succulent plant. Leaves are often bright green in color, and there is a variegated elephant bush variety that incorporates shades of red and white. In the spring small, star shaped, pale pink flowers bloom.

The elephant bush is native to South Africa, where it is still found in the wild. Its leaves stay succulent, retaining the moisture even in drought conditions. This makes it an important food source for many animals, including elephants, which helped give the plant its common names.

Elephants have a mutually beneficial relationship with the elephant bush. Elephants can eat massive amounts of the leaves, stripping the plants of growth, but the leaves grow back very quickly. While eating, the elephants actually assist in propagating the elephant bush. Since they only eat the leaves, the elephants toss the stems, which will often root and grow into new plants.

In cultivation, the elephant bush is often grown as a houseplant, although it can also survive in outdoor gardens in warm climates. It needs to be planted in rich soil that drains well, with a sunny location. It should be watered often enough to keep the soil slightly moist, and allowing to get almost dry between waterings. Due to the ability to grow to the size of its container, it makes an excellent low maintenance bonsai plant, and as a result, is quite popular with bonsai enthusiasts.

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