Sunday, June 3, 2007

Of Elephants and Bonsai

My landscape Elephant’s Food (Portulacaria afra) succumbed to the hard freeze we suffered this past January, or so I thought. When it appeared dead, I was sorry to see it go, as I think it is an especially attractive plant with its light green, succulent leaves and red stems. In March, new shoots came up from the base, and it has grown to the size shown in the photo in three short months. This plant, a native of South Africa, is ideal for Arizona’s low desert climate as it is extremely drought tolerant and can take full sun. It also does equally well—at least in the ground—when well watered.

To give you an idea of the drought hardiness of this plant, my sister just rescued a sad, bedraggled potted specimen from her neighbor’s yard when her neighbor mentioned that she had not watered it in over eight months hoping it would die. My sis said she would take it off her hands, mostly out of pity for the poor thing. A couple of good waterings will revive it in no time.

Elephant’s food rarely flowers, but mine, planted in 2005, flowered in 2006, and had many insignificant pink flowers on the branches. That was the first time I’ve ever seen Portulacaria flowers, and I’ve had potted specimens for years.

Many folks like to grow these indoors and it will do well with sufficient light, but tends to drop leaves when the light level is low. Elephant’s Food is a popular plant for use in bonsai. It lives up to 50 years, is easy to manipulate into various bonsai styles, and grows fast. Sometimes it is called Dwarf Jade, a misnomer. It is part of the Crassula family, but it is not a Jade Plant (Crassula ovata) as some believe.

African Elephants really do eat this plant, and it is a regular part of their vegetarian diet. Goats and tortoises also like to munch on it, but elephants are bigger, so they got first dibs on the name.

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