Why are the Leaves Falling Off My Elephant Bush (Portulacaria afra)?


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 and Underwatering

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.

Soil Issues

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.

Changes in Light, Temperature, and Humidity

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

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.

Source: sfgate.com

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Sudden changes in light, temperature and humidity can all contribute to leaf drop in elephant bushes. Elephant bushes prefer full sun, and if relocated to an area of less sunlight, they can start dropping leaves. 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 the elephant bush are 70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and ideal nighttime temperatures for it are 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It will not tolerate temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid placing the elephant bush 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 potentially cause leaf drop. Pests that can cause the most damage to leafy succulents are white flies and scale moths. Other pests can include spider mites, mealybugs and fungus gnat larvae. Diseases that affect the elephant bush the most are fungal. These diseases are prevented through proper watering, water drainage and pest control.

D. J. is the author of two children’s books. She has written articles on a number of topics including home improvement, pet care, health and physiology. Besides having studied journalism, she has degrees in business management and biology.


What if the plant is too dry?

Aside from the plant being too wet, the plant will also drop its leaves if it’s too dry. This usually happens when the plant is being underwatered and/or the soil medium is too fast draining and unable to retain any moisture at all.

I tend to underwater my succulents, including my Portulacaria Afra plants so I often see my plants shriveled. If a plant is constantly too dry, it starts to drop its leaves to conserve water. The bottom leaves usually go first, but leaves can drop from anywhere along the stem.


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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.


Frost Tolerance

Hailing from South Africa, these plants are generally not frost-tolerant. You can lose the plant pretty fast when it is exposed to extreme cold, especially a young, tender plant. Portulacaria Afra can withstand temperatures as low as 20℉ to 25℉ or -3.89℃ to -6.67℃. The plant may be able to survive freezing temperatures for short periods of time, as long as they get enough warmth or sunlight during the day. But it won’t be able to survive prolonged periods of freezing temperatures.

Move the plant indoors or provide some protection from frost to help the plant survive the cold. Here are some frost protection recommendations.

These are some of the most common problems you will encounter with Portulacaria Afra plants and some simple solutions you can do to save your plant. I hope you found this article useful. Thanks for visiting and as always, happy gardening! Check out these links for related topics:

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