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Wed08202014

Last updateSat, 11 Jan 2014 11am

Potted Desert Garden

Elephant’s food, or Portulacaria afra, is a wonderful plant for desert gardens. Best planted in a pot that gets afternoon shade during our hot months, Elephant’s food is a pleasure to grow.

They’re easy-care, low-water and interesting to shape. I have even seen some plants that are nurtured into small, multi-stemmed tree and bonsai forms. In the full, green-leafed variety, the contrast between the deep green leaves and the reddish brown stem is lovely.

The inset in the picture above shows the variegated type, which brings a different curiosity to the plant.

A tender succulent like elephant’s food may suffer from freeze damage when winter temperatures fall below 30 degrees. No worries; you can bring them inside and place them in a brightly lit corner of your home.

In pots, plants will range from 15 inches to 4 feet tall, depending on how you trim them.

Elephant’s food gets its name from its origin in Africa: Portulacaria afra can make up 80 percent of an elephant's diet. A group of elephants will strip all the leaves and smaller branches of a stand in a single feeding. Branches that an elephant breaks off quickly re-root and establish new stands of plants. In other words, it’s a great plant to propagate and share with friends or empty pots.

Have fun with this plant! It grows quickly and is resilient to the elements—and trimmed or broken branches will swiftly grow into new plants when planted inside or out.

Marylee Pangman is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the Desert’s Potted Garden Expert. Marylee is available for digital consultations, and you can email her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

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