Portulacaria afra foliis f. variegated
P. afra is native to Cape Provinces, Kenya, KwaZulu-Natal, Mozambique, Northern Provinces, Swaziland where the plant grows on dry flatlands and north-facing rocky slopes
P. afra is a small tree-like succulent belonging to the Didiereaceae botanical family. The plant is heavily branched and can reach up to 4 m in height. The stem is erect, pale green in young and greyish when old, the bark is smooth, shiny and reddish in color. The leaves are opposite, elliptic to rounded, fleshy, bright green with white creamy stripes and pointed at the apex. Blooming occurs from spring to summer and buds are borne at the apex of branches. The flowers are small, star-shaped, pale pink to purplish and appear in clusters. The fruits are small capsules.
This is a slow growing plant, easy to cultivate. The plant needs a full light sun exposure but is recommended to avoid direct sun-light in the hottest periods. The plant does not like temperatures below 10°C so it needs to be placed indoors in the coldest periods. The soil should be mixed with pumice, clay and loam to allow the drainage and prevent the root rot, the plant is prone to it indeed. Remember to use a perforating pot to drain excess water. Watering can be done regularly in Spring and Summer: during the vegetative period you can water the plant (every 7 days), checking that the soil is completely dry before watering again; in winter you should stop the watering to allow the plant to enter dormancy. If you want a faster and lush growth you can fertilize the plant once a month during the growing season with the specific fertilizers for cacti; stop fertilizing throughout the winter. If the pot starts to be too small for the plant you can repot the plant in a pot 2 cm wider. Repotting should be done early in the growing season with fresh new potting soil. Be careful to red spiders and mealy bugs.
Propagation can be done by cutting or by seed. By cutting you can make the cut during the spring and then let the cutting dry; after a few days the cut surface will dry and a callus will form, then place the cutting in a mixture of sand, soil and pumice. To increase the success of propagation you can make two or more cuttings at the same time. For cuttings it is recommended temperatures around 20 °C. By seed it is very simple to propagate the plant, it is enough to sow the seed in a sandy loam soil and keep it with a high level of humidity and at temperature of 14 C°.
The small leaves of Portulacaria and the tendency of the stem to become woody make it very popular among bonsai lovers, who, by careful pruning and tying, can give them the shape of small trees. In Africa it used as elephant’s food. The variegation is due to the loss of the ability to produce chlorophyll in some tissues of the plant, so that this tissue is no longer green. Chlorophyll-free tissues are usually white or pale yellow coloured (due to carotenoid pigments) in contrast to the normal green tissue.
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