Elephant Bush Watering Needs (A Simple Guide)

The Elephant Bush, also commonly known as the Portulacaria afra or Spekboom plant, is a soft wooded succulent shrub endemic to South Africa. You’ll primarily find it growing in rocky places and semi-arid landscapes. It’s a very drought-resistant plant, so it only needs watering during its growing season, and only when the earth has dried up.

How Often Should You Water Elephant Bush

The areas in South Africa where the Elephant Bush thrives are all prone to draughts. This means that the Portulacaria afra is highly drought tolerant and can take a fair amount of neglect, making it an ideal low-maintenance house or garden plant.

However, Spekboom grows significantly quicker with adequate water. Not only does it grow faster, but you will also notice its foliage is more lush.

It’s essential to align your watering schedule with the seasons. For example, this would mean that in winter, you restrict watering, but as spring rolls around, you increase the watering sparingly.

The best way to figure out how often you should water your Elephant Bush in the spring and summer is to test the soil. A good rule of thumb is that you should allow the soil to dry to around the depth of an inch before you water it again. In reality, this could look like watering your plant once a week in the summer.

If your Portulacaria afra is an indoor plant, you also need to consider the environment indoors regardless of the season. For example, if it’s winter but the room where you keep the Elephant Bush is very warm and bright, you might want to consider watering it more often.

As is the case with other succulents, the golden rule is never to overwater. Also, if you live in a freeze-prone area and your plant is outside, you might want to invest in some winter protection for your Elephant Bush. Some of the regions of South Africa where the Portulacaria afra grows have freezing cold winters, but snow is still uncommon.

Watering Issues

Elephant Bush has a photosynthetic mechanism, which means it can easily adapt to all kinds of weather conditions – from intense heat to cold winters. However, despite the Spekboom’s incredible abilities to adapt to its environment, not watering it properly – whether giving too much or too little water – can still wreak havoc.

Underwatered Elephant Bush

If an Elephant Bush is underwatered, the first signs you’ll see are shriveled leaves and crisp, dry roots. The leaves might even be more dull or light in color or even brown.

You’ll see that the leaves look limp and wilted. If you leave them, they will eventually drop off, especially if you touch them or even just move the pot around. The plant drops leaves in an attempt to conserve moisture. You’ll find that the leaves at the bottom of the plant start to drop first.

Keep in mind that if the leaves are dropping off, it might have a different cause than just being underwatered. This could be due to a sudden temperature fluctuation that came about by being too close to a heat source or being moved to a very cold spot.

The best way to save a plant with shriveled leaves is to give it a proper drink by watering it until water runs out of the drainage holes. You should see your Elephant Bush perk up in a couple of days, and the leaves will turn more plump again.

If you detect signs of underwatering in the early stages, the best solution is to increase your watering schedule and allow the soil to dry properly between each watering.

However, if the underwatering is so severe that the soil is pulling away from the sides (because the soil is so dry and dense water doesn’t penetrate it), then your best option is to soak the whole pot in water for about 30 minutes before dumping out the excess water. 

The signs of underwatering can also be due to your soil medium being too fast draining, or it simply being the wrong type of soil. If it drains too fast, it means it is unable to retain any moisture. So if the leaves keep looking shriveled despite a regular watering schedule, that could be the culprit.

Overwatered Elephant Bush

Giving your Elephant Bush too much water can also be fatal for the plant. If the leaves look swollen and even a bit yellow or translucent, it could be a sign that you are overwatering it.

The easiest way to prevent this from happening is by adapting your water schedule to the seasons. So when the Elephant Bush is dormant in winter, you restrict watering.

All other times, be mindful that the pot drains well, so don’t forget to check the saucer under your pot so that there’s no water accumulating. If you find that your plant might be overwatered, but it’s still in decent shape – carefully remove the plant from the soil and let it dry out completely for a week or two in a shaded area.

If the roots are constantly sitting in water, they might develop root rot. The root rot will eventually lead to the plant collapsing. This happens slowly as the stems start getting soft and mushy, and they are no longer able to support the plant.

Saving a succulent, that’s suffering from root rot can be really tricky. Fortunately, the Spekboom can be propagated extremely easily. Therefore, the best solution is to find cut off some healthy stems and root them in a potting mix.

It’s always vital to ensure you have the right type of soil for your Elephant Bush. The wrong type of soil means the soil will retain too much water leading to the same results as if you were overwatering the plant.

As the Elephant Bush is notoriously easy to grow, you should have a new healthy plant in a relatively short period of time. If you take good care of your Portulacaria afra it will even outlive you as a Spekboom can become 200 years old!

Final Thoughts

The Elephant Bush is a draught-resistant plant that shouldn’t be overwatered. Waiting until the soil dries to around the depth of an inch before watering again is a good rule of thumb to follow. Watering less frequently in winter is also a good idea.

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