Operculicarya decaryi


No synonyms are recorded for this name.


Operculicarya decaryi is native to Madagascar. In particular, it is endemic to the Southern and South-western regions of the country, where it grows in the provinces of Toliara and Fianarantsoa. Although it’s an endemism, present only in that specific area all over the world, it is widely present and it’s not threatened with extintion in its natural habitat, though a continuous decline is recorded because of the overcollection of its seedlings and the consumption of its bark by many species of herbivores. There are, in fact, 37 known populations of this species. Its habitat consists in xerophytic thickets and forest. “Xerophytic thickets” are scrublands made of xerophyllous plants, which are kinds of plants that have developed specific mechanisms to resist drought. The altitude range of O. decaryi is between 0 and 1000 meters above the sea level.


Operculicarya decaryi, also called “Elephant tree”, is an ornamental perennial tree belonging to the family of Anacardiaceae. It is mainly grown in pots and grown as a caudiciform bonsai. “Caudiciform” means, in botanic language, “equipped with a caudex”. A caudex is an enlarged stem typical of many trees from semi-arid habitats, usually more or less irregularly globose and wooden, which has the function to store water and nutrients with the purpose to survive drought. In the elephant tree, the caudex might be barrel-shaped, bottle-shaped, or globose, or even irregularly divided in more subcaudex that look like some fat legs. The stem, instead, forms a regular, erect trunk, also very tall in wild plants (up to 15 meters!). A peculiar feature of the stem is its bark: it is irregularly covered in wooded bumps, brownish to dark grey in colour. The elephant tree branches abundantly, and the little twigs are usually hairy and straight. Leaves, instead, are “paripennate”. This, in botanic language, means that the leaf you see are actually leaflets, because they don’t have any axillar bud. The bud lays instead at the axil of a group of leaflets, which makes the actual leaf. The leaf are thus formed by a little, herbaceous branch, with the leaflets lined up at its two opposite sides. In the elephant tree, leaves are 3 to 6 centimeters long and contain 4 to 9 pairs of leaflet, which are slightly hairy or glabrous, depending on the specimen and on the age of the plant. In shape, they are circulate to ovate; in colour, bright green.
Operculicarya decaryi is a dioecious plant: another botanical term to say that there are “male” and “female” plants. “Males” have only male flowers, while “Females” have only female ones. Flowers, both male and femals, are rather small and dark red.


Operculicarya decaryi is considered an easy species to grow, both indoors and outdoors. Here below are our tips:

Put it at filtered light: it also enjoys full sun with cool temperatures. Light shade will be okay when it’s too hot.
The elephant tree prefers warm temperatures: never leave it at less then 10ºC during the night and 18ºC during the day in Winter and 15ºC (nocturnal) and 26 to 43ºC (diurnal) in Spring and Summer. As cold approaches, we strongly suggest to place it indoors. To obtain a healthy blossoming, this species need a pronounced change between a cold period and a warmer one. It thrives in regions with hot Summers and temperate Winters.
When it has leaves on, water regularly: it likes plenty of water during the summer, though always waiting for the soil to dry up before every irrigation. During the winter, when leaves fall and the Elephant tree enters dormancy, it is necessary to suspend watering. If you keep it permanently indoors, water more unfrequently and be careful with quantity.
Choose a well-drained substrate, sandy and gritty: a standard mix for succulents will do good.
Fertilization can be done once the growth season, diluting a product specific for succulents with water at half the doses recommended on the label.
It is a slow-growing species and, thus, repotting is not so frequently necessary.


Propagation is carried out through seeds and cuttings. Seeds must be immersed in warm water for 24 hours and, then, sown in a sandy substrate. The germination period lasts 6 months, during which seeds germinate gradually. Cuttings can be choosen among one of the little branches, to be put in a sandy substrate to be maintained moist until it puts roots. Also, they can be soaked in water and will put roots after a while. Cuttings can be also obtained by pieces of the enlarged roots. Plants grown from seeds usually develop a better caudex.


Operculicarya decaryi is mainly sought after for their attitude to make perfect cute bonsais. However, they have also several traditional uses: medicinal uses to aid human parturition, ropes are made using the bark, and the interior part of its trunk is traditionally used for mummification!

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