Big eco rewards from the spekboom

The spekboom (Portulacaria afra) in the Baviaanskloof had an early showing of pink flowers.

The spekboom (Portulacaria afra) in the Baviaanskloof had an early showing of pink flowers.

Published May 9, 2013


The unmulched garden looks to me like some naked thing which for one reason or another would be better off with a few clothes on. – Ruth Stout.


Cape Town - It is refreshing for a gardener to have the occasional break from her precious plot and to explore new vistas, especially in autumn when most things can take care of themselves for a while.

So it was that after an absence of three weeks we returned, to be welcomed by a garden smiling with flowers, birds, butterflies and bees.

Yet we could also see the need for some judicious pruning, thinning out, replanting and, above all, mulching in preparation for winter. And we had renewed energy with which to tackle these tasks.

The Eastern Cape, where we travelled, surprised us with swathes of sky-blue plumbago and orange Cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) growing abundantly in the wild. So, too, was another of that district’s horticultural gifts to the world, the spekboom (Portulacaria afra).

The spekboom – or “elephant food” – is grown worldwide and is valued as an addition to a succulent garden, or as a hedging plant or even grown as a bonsai.

Here in the Western Cape, it has been overlooked as a garden subject. However, it is worthwhile growing it as is a most obliging plant, being drought-resistant, hardy (except in frost), amenable to pruning and easily propagated from cuttings.

As with most succulents, leave the cuttings to dry off for a day or two before inserting them in a potting mix. And never over-water. Good drainage and ample sunlight will make it flourish.

In containers, the spekboom is smaller than its usual two metres. In its natural habitat like Addo, however, where it provides valuable fodder for elephants and other game, it can develop into impenetrable thickets up to four metres high. Indeed, in earlier days, one elephant hunter used a ladder to spy out his prey.

In the Baviaanskloof, we were surprised to see a few clusters of its tiny pink flowers, for this was out of season. The usual time is October and November, when it transforms the uniform green hillsides with sheets of pink, a glorious sight. But I have not seen it in flower in the Western Cape.

Here, too, its leaves are usually yellow in colour, unlike its normal mid-green foliage. This is a cultivar, sometimes called “lutea” or “aurea”.

Apart from its use as a garden plant, spekboom is fire-resistant, is a soil improver and combats soil erosion.

Perhaps its finest attribute in this era of global warming is that it mops up carbon, storing as much as four tons a hectare, in its tissues and leaves. A miracle plant indeed. - Cape Argus

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