The Elephant Bush, also known as Spekboom or Portulacaria afra is a perennial succulent shrub native to South Africa. It has a red-brown, almost purple-colored trunk and thumb-sized circular-shaped leaves. It’s become a very popular plant as it’s highly adaptable and easy to care for. However, despite being known as a no-fuss plant, many people find their elephant bush leaves wrinkling.
Elephant bush leaves may wrinkle when underwatered
The Elephant bush thrives in the drought-prone areas of South Africa, so similar to other succulents, they are perfectly fine when you skip a watering or two. But going for too long without any water is one of the main causes of shriveled, curling or wrinkled leaves.
Depending on where you live or whether you keep your Elephant bush inside or outside the house also affects how quickly your shrub may become underwatered. For example, if your Spekboom receives several hours of direct sunlight, the sunlight will dry the soil very quickly, which will worsen any underwatering. If you live in a very hot and dry climate, underwatering can become a problem even sooner.
The first sign of underwatering to look out for is if the Elephant bush leaves are curling or shriveled and appear dull in color. These leaves will also drop off very easily, so you can expect to already see some leaves on the ground or leaves falling as soon as you touch them.
Fortunately, succulents are very hardy plants, and in almost all cases, they’ll bounce right back once you properly water the plant again. If you see the leaves starting to wrinkle and you haven’t watered in a few days, then check the top few inches of the soil. If it feels very dry, the curling and wrinkled leaves are probably due to underwatering.
The best way to remedy this is by giving your Elephant bush a good soak until the excess water starts coming out of the pot’s drainage holes. However, if you think your Spekboom is severely underwatered, you can instead opt to bottom water it.
Bottom watering entails you placing the whole plant in the pot in a tub of water allowing the soil to get completely soaked. As soon as the top of the soil starts feeling damp you can remove the pot and let the water drain out. This will take about 30 minutes, but can vary depending on the pot size for example.
You can expect the leaves to start filling up again with moisture after a couple of days. From this point on you only need to water it again if the top few inches of the soil feels dry.
Most people are surprised to learn that too much sunlight can also cause the leaves of an Elephant bush to shrivel up or even to burn. This might happen if you place the shrub in direct sunlight in your house or if it’s outside in the scorching sun for hours on end.
The best way to protect against this from happening is to ensure your Spekboom is getting plenty of indirect sunlight. Placing your Elephant bush in a sun-facing window during the summer months is a surefire way to quickly dry out your shrub.
Overwatering may also cause elephant bush leaves to shrivel and wrinkle
As a succulent a Spekboom can easily become overwatered which over time can cause root rot that will eventually kill the plant. Especially in cooler conditions the Elephant bush might be even more susceptible to overwatering as the soil takes longer to dry out. This combined with overwatering drastically increases the chance of root rot.
The signs to look out for in addition to shriveled or wrinkled leaves is to check if any of the leaves are yellow or translucent. The stems could also start becoming brown and mushy with leaves easily falling off. Also keep an eye on how the soil feels as soggy and damp soil is the first sign of overwatering.
If any of these conditions are present coupled with wrinkled or curled leaves then you can conclude that the shriveled leaves are most likely due to over watering and not under watering.
In general, Portulacaria should be watered about once every 2 weeks, only after the top 1 to 2 inches of soil are completely dry. During the winter or in low-light environments, the frequency should be even less because the soil takes longer to dry out. It is important to only water when the top few inches of soil are dry.
If you suspect that you might have overwatered your Elephant bush, remove it from the pot and gently clean the soil off the roots. Then using a clean pair of scissors trim off any mush and brown or black roots. Normal and healthy roots will have a light tan color. Remember to always disinfect the scissors before using it on the roots of other plants as it’s an easy way to spread fungal infections and rot.
Clean the pot with soap and warm water before filling it with completely new soil. Don’t forget to add a level of perlite to ensure proper drainage and prevent another case of root rot.
Before you replant the cleaned roots, prune the damaged leaves. Place your Spekboom in an area with plenty of bright light and proper air flow and make sure to adapt your watering schedule. Always check the top layer of soil before watering as it may dry at different speeds depending on the time of year.
Since the Elephant bush is known as being an extremely hardy and very easy plant to take care of, people may often forget how very sensitive succulents are to under and overwatering. However, if you follow a few cardinal rules like always checking the top soil before watering, using a suitable pot and placing it in a sunny spot with unfiltered light then you are well on your way to owning a flourishing Elephant bush.