It is a soft-wooded, semi-evergreen upright shrub or small tree, usually 2.5–4.5 metres (8–15 ft) tall. Similar in appearance to the "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.
Within the genus Portulacaria, it has been shown to be an outlier, relatively unrelated to the other species in the genus, which are all restricted to small ranges in the arid far west of southern Africa.
Distribution and habitat
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 within a specific habitat known as Albany Thicket, which locally is often called noorsveld, after the high number of succulent Euphorbia species, which are often called noors plants.
Cultivation and uses
In the wilds of South Africa, large plants do survive the winter frosts by growing dense enough to provide their own natural cover. Drought-tolerant and fire-resistant, it will endure desert sun and heat once established, which the jade plant will not. Cuttings root very easily in most potting media.
- "Limpopo": A variety with much larger leaves. It is the natural form from the far north of the species' range.
- "Prostrata": A low-lying, decumbent form that is frequently used as a ground-cover.
- "Aurea": A compact, upright form with rounded leaves that go bright yellow in the sun.
- "Foliis variegatus": A variegated form.
- "Medio-picta": Variegated with a lighter centre.
In southern Africa it is commonly eaten, usually as one component of a salad or a soup.
- "Portulacaria afra Monograph". Phoenixbonsai.com. Retrieved 2011-01-20.
- P.Bruyns, M.Oliveira-Neto, G.F. Melo de Pinna, C.Klak: Phylogenetic relationships in the Didiereaceae with special reference to subfamily Portulacarioideae. Taxon 63 (5). October 2014. 1053-1064.
- Lonnie J. Guralnick, Patricia A. Rorabaugh & Zac Hanscom, III (1984). "Seasonal shifts of photosynthesis in Portulacaria afra (L.) Jacq.". Plant Physiology 76 (3): 643–646. doi:10.1104/pp.76.3.643. PMC 1064348. PMID 16663899.
- D'Cruz, Mark. "Ma-Ke Bonsai Care Guide for Portulacaria afra". Ma-Ke Bonsai. Retrieved 2010-12-07.