Portulacaria afra is a small evergreen shrub from South Africa. It is actually a succulent and looks like a smaller version of a jade, so it is often called a dwarf jade.
This is what I usually call it, just because it’s less of a mouthful to say. It’s also known as spekboom or the elephant bush.
I have been growing one for a couple of years and you can see its progression in my Portulacaria Afra Bonsai Progression.
Is Portulacaria Afra A Good Species for Bonsai?
The simple answer is yes. Portulacaria afra is an amazing species for bonsai. However, you will find plenty of people who disagree.
The tree is a succulent, so it’s not exactly a tree. This means there are a lot of differences between it and a “normal” tree. How you care for it and deal with it is also very different and some people seem to think these differences make it substandard for bonsai.
There can often be a bit of snobbery around trees and people seem to think that if it’s not popular in Japan, then it’s not worth your time. While the Japanese have certainly found some of the best trees to use for bonsai, there are plenty of other species around the world that work equally as well and portulacaria afra is one of these.
When you look at any species of tree you need to ask if it can be grown in a way that makes it look very old, while also being miniature. This is something you can do with portulacaria afra. How you get there might be different, but the end result is the same, which is a great looking tree.
This species really has it all. It’s easy to care for and it is also one of the very few trees you can keep inside. It grows fast, its responds well to techniques and is very forgiving. It also can be made into a tree of any size and you can get it to look like a really fabulous bonsai.
I would actually say this is one of the best trees you can use. You can read more about what other trees I picked in – What Are The Best Species For Beginners To Use For Bonsai?
Is APortulacaria Afras Foliage Good For Bonsai?
The foliage on portulacaria afra is very similar to the jade and you can also get a number of varieties, including a variegated version.
The leaf size is naturally pretty small, but through pruning you can really get it to reduce and you can end up with very small leaves which is ideal for bonsai and also means you can have a tree at any size and it will always look in proportion.
The internode length on portulacaria afra can get a bit stretched and long. If this is the case it means you tree does not have enough light and is stretching to find more. This is a classic behaviour of a succulent.
The good thing is that if you give the tree plenty of light, the internodes will naturally be very small and tight. This can be improved further though pruning. It is very easy to get very dense tight foliage on a portulacaria afra which is why they are excellent for bonsai.
Is A Portulacaria Afras Growth Rate Good For Bonsai?
Given the right conditions, a portulacaria afra will grow extremely quickly. The secret ingredient is plenty of light.
These plants come from South Africa so they are used to getting a lot of sun and it being very dry. This can be hard to replicate in more northern climates, but its not impossible.
As I’ve just said, portulacaria afra need the right conditions and for most of us, that means growing them inside. Where I live is quite cold, dark and wet at times, which is everything that will kill this tree.
They are one of the few trees that can stay inside all year round, but they can be placed outside during the warm summer months.
Keeping them indoors means you can control the water, but its not always the best option due to lower light levels. However, a grow light will certainly fix this and I have had some seriously great results with my portulacaria afra under grow lights.
I would say portulacaria afra is the best tree for indoor bonsai, but you can read my other choices in – The Best Trees You Can Use For Indoor Bonsai.
Response To Pruning
Portulacaria afra respond really well to pruning. I would argue better than a normal tree.
With a normal tree you need to let it grow out and get thick, you cut it back and then start growing the branches again, this time pruning to build your structure and ramification. We all know this method, it’s the classic way to grow a bonsai.
A portulacaria afra is very different. You can just start pruning right from the start. Every time you prune it will subdivide into two new shoots (like most other trees). This will allow you to build great ramification, but the huge difference is that this will still thicken the trunk.
The more leaves a portulacaria afra has, the thicker the trunk will get. You can let it the branches grow out, they will of course have more leaves and the tree will thicken. However, pruning often will build up ramification and of course more leaves, which in turn brings more thickness.
This can really speed up the development of your tree as you are doing both stages at once, which is very different to a normal tree.
I have my portulacaria afra in a pretty small pot and I have only focused on pruning it. It has really thickened up a lot which would not have happened with a normal tree. This is partly why I think they are one of the best trees you can use for bonsai.
You can get a tree to back bud quite easily. They will usually only shoot where you prune, but if you remove all the leaves, or take the tree back hard, it will start to send out a lot of back buds.
Ramification is very easy to achieve. You just need to keep pruning the tree back. Prune it back to one or two sets of leaves and it will always send out two new shoots. Just keep repeating this and each time it will get smaller and smaller and you will very quickly have a very densely ramified tree.
It’s very easy and why I think it is such a good tree for bonsai.
Is A Portulacaria Afras Styling Ability Good For Bonsai?
Being a succulent they do not really have their own natural style. This means you can really take them in any direction you want. They are also evergreen so this can play a role in what style you choose, but really they are a blank canvas and can be taken in any direction you want.
You can wire portulacaria afra but you need to be careful. Being a succulent the branches are not made in the same way. Basically they just full of water and can snap quite easily.
You can, with great care wire the branches, but you will be more moving their position as a whole, such as moving the whole branch down, or to the left. You are not going to be able to put crazy movement into the branches like you can with a pine or juniper but that is okay as you can use clip and grow to build a lot of the branching and its movement, so you can easily get a tree to become the style you want.
Is A Portulacaria Afras Fall Colours Good For Bonsai?
The tree is evergreen so you will not get any change throughout the year and you will not get any leaf drop. This means you will not get to see the winter silhouette.
However, you can defoliate them so you can see the branch structure and correct it however you need to. The new leaves that grow back will also be smaller, so this is a pretty cool technique to try every couple of years.
Is Portulacaria Afras Bark Good For Bonsai?
The bark on portulacaria afra is actually very interesting. It remains very smooth and boring for a while, but eventually it starts to change and gets very textured. It has fissures running up the length of the trunk and it looks very cool. You can also get a cork bark variety which has the most amazing craggy bark.
As the tree is a succulent, it heals slightly different. You can cut a branch off flat, rather than going for a concave cut. The bark will not roll into this type of cut like a normal tree. Instead the flat cut will just sort of dry out and with time the wound will take on the colour of the rest of the bark and sort of blend in. It is a little strange, but it means you can make wounds and not really worry about them over the long term.
Deadwood will not work on portulacaria afra. As it is a succulent the deadwood sort of shrivels up and drops off, so you won’t even get a chance to try and have it.
The same goes for carving. This is not going to work so don’t even try. The centre of the tree is just full of water and there is no hardwood to carve.
Are A Portulacaria Afras Roots Good For Bonsai?
The roots are also excellent on a portulacaria afra and are great for bonsai. Firstly they are extremely drought tolerant. You can literally let them go bone dry and leave them for weeks and they will be fine. This is the power of succulents.
Secondly, they just grow roots for run. You could literally cut off every single root and they will just grow more. You can actually remove a leaf and get it to grow roots, so the base of the trunk will have no problem with growing roots.
The do grow plenty of fine roots but can also get out of control pretty easily. It is maybe a little difficult at times get the roots into a super radial, flat root spread, but over all they are decent. The fact that you can really work hard on them and the fact they will always bounce back is really helpful, especially for a beginner.
Is Portulacaria Afra Easy To Care For As Bonsai?
The care of portulacaria afra is very different, but it’s very easy. It is a little strange keeping a plant inside and letting it dry out. It kind of goes against all the bonsai rules, but so long as you know to treat them different, both for care and how to work on them, you can’t mess them up.
You can read more information in my Portulacaria Afra Care Guide.
Portulacaria afra may not be a “real” tree, but that doesn’t matter to me. You can take these succulents and get pretty incredible looking trees in a really short time.
For me they are the perfect low maintenance tree. If you are a beginner in bonsai, or just busy a lot of the time, they are the perfect tree. You can ignore them and they will just keep going. I will be defiantly adding more to my collection in the future. They are just excellent for bonsai.