Portulacaria afra, commonly known as Elephant Bush or Elephant Food, is known and used around the world as a succulent garden shrub and as a bonsai subject. It is a perfect addition to your indoor or outdoor succulent garden. It is also known as Dwarf Jade or Miniature Jade, but it is not related to Crassula ovata. The leaves are small, rounded, green to yellowish, and succulent, held on red stems. They are edible with a pleasant, acidy taste. Elephant Bush also comes in variegated forms.
As the common name "Elephant Food" suggests, this succulent is eaten by elephants but feeds goats and tortoises as well. It is also used in Southern African cuisine, added to salads, soups, and stews to add a sour flavor.
If planted outdoors, Elephant Bush grows in USDA plant hardiness zones 9b through 11. Like any other succulent, it has its problems, including leaf drop.
Overwatering is the primary cause of failure in Elephant Bush because it invites fungal rot disease. The leaves of the overwatered plant become swollen and discolored. Leaf drop may occur in severe cases. To save a plant that has been overwatered, repot it after removing any rotten roots.
Leaf drop can also occur if the Elephant Bush is underwatered. Not enough water causes the leaves to dry up and sometimes drop off. This succulent should be watered more often in summer and less in the winter. Let the soil dry between waterings. In the winter, give enough water to keep the leaves from shriveling.
Leaf drop may also occur if the soil does not have proper nutrients or drainage qualities. You can use a specially formulated potting soil for succulents or create your own. Adequate water drainage should be a priority for any succulent soil. If using regular potting soil, adding perlite can help with drainage as well as aeration. Use a balanced fertilizer no more than twice a summer.
Sudden changes in light, temperature, and humidity can all contribute to leaf drop in Elephant Bush. This succulent prefer full sun, and if relocated to an area of less sunlight, it can start dropping leaves.
The same goes for temperature. If you move your plant from a cooler area to a much warmer area or vice versa, the plant may react in the same way and begin dropping leaves. Severe changes in humidity can have the same results. Ideal daytime temperatures for Elephant Bush are 70 to 85 °F (21 to 29 °C), and ideal nighttime temperatures for it are 50 to 55 °F (10 to 13 °C). Avoid placing the plant near a heating or air conditioning vent to prevent it from getting too dry. Humidifiers may be used during the winter to maintain humidity levels.
Pests and diseases can weaken a plant enough to cause leaf drop potentially. Pests that can cause the most damage to leafy succulents are whiteflies and scale moths. Other pests can include spider mites, mealybugs, and fungus gnat larvae. Diseases that affect Elephant Bush the most are fungal. These diseases are prevented through proper watering, water drainage, and pest control.
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If you are planting the elephant bush outside, then the soil you’re going to place the plant in needs to be sandy and well-draining. Rocky soil always works as well. And for the inside potted plants, basic potting soil or cactus soil would suffice as the soil mix.
The elephant bush does best in warm temperatures. It does not like the cold at all, and after a few days outside, the plant will start to wither. This plant should not be outside if it drops lower than 30F.
If the elephant plant you have is too big for its current container, then you need to relocate the plant into a larger container, so it has room to grow. When you have the pot you want to transfer it too, make sure it can drain at the bottom. Drill extra holes if you need to. Combine some of the old soil in the old pot with new soil, so you don’t give you plant shock when you transfer it into the new soil. Then water lightly and monitor the plant to make sure it is accepting its new home. Don’t add extra fertilizer to the soil right after repotting. Give it a few weeks before you change the composition of the soil.
Because of its long stem, this plant is a great plant to propagate. First, choose a health branch with a lot of leaves on it, and cut the stem all the way to the base where the stem meets the main stem. Plant the stem into the soil and water it thoroughly, but don’t soak it.
These large succulents can reach heights of over 12 feet, even if it is an indoor plant. As long as you practice the drought and soak methods and keep it in front of full indirect sunlight, your elephant plant will grow big and strong. The width it can cover is over two feet in diameter, depending on the size of the leaves.
The elephant bust itself can stand hot weather and humid climate, but it’s flowers cannot. During the spring, its flowers only grow if the environment is mild and the heat isn’t strong. The flowers look like beautiful pink clusters of petals that grow around the elephant bush. They mostly grow along the brown stem of the plant. Sometimes, the flower can come in an arrangement of white, purple, and pink.
If your Elephant Bush is suffering from pests invasion or some infection, it will start losing leaves pretty fast. Leafy succulents as this one are commonly sensitive to wite flies and scale moths. Other pests that can invade your succulent include mealybugs, spider mites, and fungus gnat larvae. Diseases your Elephant Bush can suffer from are mostly fungal. However, you can prevent these diseases by proper watering, soil with good drainage and some pests control products.
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It is normal for the plant to drop its lower leaves in moderation, as part of normal growth. As long as they are being replaced by new ones on top, it's nothing to worry about. What you've got going on looks like dehydration to me. Either the plant is not getting water often enough, or it does not have enough roots to take up the water it does get. Both are reasonably likely, given the origin of the plant.
I'm guessing the grow light caused a lot of evaporation from the soil, and that had something to do with what you're observing. Given strong light and room temperature days, I would water a pot like that once a week, roughly. You might increase the watering frequency, especially if it's relatively close to a grow light. Definitely keep watering to completion as you have been doing.
Natural light should be better than artificial light, if your window faces a southerly direction and the plant is right next to it, so it "sees" the sun for hours a day. As long as that space doesn't get cold in the winter, it should be ideal for most succulents.
At one time, my Portulacaria afra 'Variegata' which came with the common name 'Rainbow Elephant Bush' looked much the same as yours, so don't give up hope. Mine does well, but I confess that I personally water my plants a good deal less than most people seem to. My experience on the Portulacaria afras, both variegated and green is that they tolerate a relatively long period between waterings quite well. If I wait long enough to see crinkling on the surface, though, I give them a good soaking. My planting medium may not be as fast draining as others, though, so be somewhat wary of advice from me.
It is entirely possible that what you got was 3 cuttings which had not properly rooted, or had somehow lost their roots while under the care of the big box store. If that is the case then there may be a lag while they root (or root again, as the case may be), and they will continue to decline above ground before you detect signs of recovery.
The best thing you can do at this point is get a good sense of when the soil is drying out. I suspect the grow lights may accelerate that process, especially if you have them close to the plant. There is no advantage to allowing the soil to sit bone dry for any extended period (more than a day or two). There is a substantial chance of rot if you do not allow the soil to dry out regularly in between watering. Try to stay in the happy, healthy range between those 2 extremes, and your plant should recover. And come spring, with stronger light and warmer temps, maybe you can relocate the plant to a spot with more natural light.
My elephant bush is staying outdoors here with our overnight temps hitting 30F and daytime highs at 55F to 60F range. Gets rained on, the difference with your set-up right now, there is more cool airflow around my plants and has been weather hardened already.
It does similar leaf transition time as with Crassulas. Getting all wrinkly and dropping the older leaves, then a new batch emerges, I usually observe that leaf transition period here when our weather is slowly shifting from the hot and dry period, to the cooler temps with some rain. So just got to be patient, continue watering intervals, and bright light exposure.