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Spekboom: the wonder plant of the dry regions

Spekboom in bloom

Portulacaria afra (known as elephant bush, dwarf jade plant, porkbush, spekboom in Afrikaans iNtelezi in Zulu and iGqwanitsha in Xhosa) is a small-leaved succulent plant found in South Africa.
The name Portulacaria is composed of Portulaca + aria suggesting a similarity to the genus Portulaca. The word afra is in reference to the fact that the plant occurs in Africa.

Description

It is a soft-wooded, semi-evergreen upright shrub or small tree, usually 2.5–4.5 meters (8–15 ft) tall. Similar in appearance to the unrelated “jade plant” Crassula ovata (family Crassulaceae), P. afra has smaller and rounder pads and more compact growth (shorter internodal spaces, down to 1.5 mm). It is much hardier, faster growing, more loosely branched, and has more limber tapering branches than Crassula once established. Maroon stems contrast beautifully with the light green leaves and delicate pink, star-shaped flowers add to its beauty when they appear from late winter through to spring.

The genus Portulacaria has been shown to be an outlier, relatively unrelated to the other genera in the family, which are all restricted to small ranges in the arid far west of southern Africa.

Distribution and habitat

It is very widespread in the east of South Africa (including Swaziland and Mozambique and adjacent regions). In this moist climate, it is relatively rare, and tends to favour dryer rocky outcrops and slopes.
It is also found in much denser numbers in the dryer southern Cape. Here it occurs from the “Little Karoo” of the Western Cape, eastwards up until the thicket vegetation of the Eastern Cape. Spekboom is found most prolifically in the Albany thickets, a woodland ecoregion, which locally is often called noorsveld, after the high number of succulent Euphorbia species, which are often called noors plants.


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