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Jade Bonsai

A jade bonsai created from Portulacaria afra is much easier to develop as a good bonsai than the larger leaf plant, Crassula argentea.

Portulacaria afra is also known as elephant grass, small leaf jade and dwarf jade.

It has shorter internodes and much smaller leaves than Crassula varieties.

However, both species are often referred to by the common name of jade.

Small Leaf Jade Bonsai

Young branches and trunk are reddish brown, when they mature they become grayish in color.

The leaves are very close together, obovate, opposite and just under 1/2 ’’ long -- when grown in the sun.

To keep a good bonsai shape, frequent pruning (and/or pinching) is necessary.

In the summer it is not unusual to ‘pinch’ or prune twice a week to maintain a well-styled tree.

At first glance it may be difficult to recognize this plant as a good bonsai subject, take a second look. Scrutinize the trunk.

Finding Subjects

Portulacaria afra is commonly used in hanging baskets and for potted house plants. You may find them overgrown in garden centers.

In some climates, good subjects may be found in the ground.

Guy Dunan pointed out some beauties in the landscape in Hawaii. The trunks were several inches in diameter!

For most of us, the best place for finding a starter or even specimens, is in bonsai nurseries.

Water storing plants such as Portulacaria use their fleshy leaves and branches as reservoirs. 

They can survive in relatively small amounts of soil and like to almost dry out between waterings.

During the rainy season in Miami, I always moved my ‘tiny leaf jades’ under the eaves of the house and hand watered them as needed.

They did not didn't need the daily rains, especially when recently potted.

Watering (or not) is the trickiest part of growing this plant.

For those who often forget to water, jade bonsai may be the ideal candidate!

Root Pruning and Repotting

Bonsai jade prefer ‘tight feet’. Sometimes they can go years without root pruning. Light root trimming is effective, however when necessary, drastic root pruning is not harmful.

jade bonsai, bonsai portulacaria, bonsai jade  This subjected created by Jim SmithJade bonsai by Jim Smith, Vero Beach, FL

Over the years Jim Smith, Vero Beach, FL developed numerous specimen jade bonsai (one of his is shown here).

Jim said one of the most important things to remember when repotting jade bonsai, trimming roots or transplanting is:

Allow the soil to become dry before repotting and DO NOT WATER the plant immediately after potting.

The existing leaves may even shrivel before new leaves appear. This is not a problem. If some of the old leaves drop, they will quickly be replaced.

Portulacaria afra is a heavy feeder.

Use a balanced formula (e.g. 20-20-20), full strength fertilizer weekly during the growing season and monthly during its slow time. If you don’t have time or are likely to forget - use a time release fertilizer.

Whichever soil you use, it should be very fast draining and then adapt your watering accordingly.

Jade Bonsai Notes

  • In arid areas there are few problems with Portulacaria afra, the climate is perfect. In more humid and rainy zones, sheltered areas and indoors may be better environments – also, some pests are more likely.
  • Never use petroleum based chemicals on succulents. They can cause major leaf loss (although they sometimes return). Unless you have a serious pest problem, use sudsy detergent water or even a garden hose may spray away minor problems.
  • Fungus is a jade bonsai problem often caused by overwatering. Soft or soggy branches and trunks are a sign of too much water. If this happens, it may be too late, so drastic measures are called for:

Allow the plant to totally dry out and sit dry for a couple of weeks or more. Even this may not stop the rot. Consider removing all the old soil and change to a coarser, dry mix.

  • Portulacaria can be difficult to stabilize as bonsai, especially in shallow containers. Even though they can grow in very little soil, their weight may cause them to fall over. Tie the plant in, prop it with rock or even secure the plant to a temporary rock to keep it stable (until the fine roots become totally established).
  • Jade bonsai plants are tropical and must be protected from frosts and freezes. It is considered by many, to be a good indoor bonsai tree. (High light is required.)
  • Never try to create jin or shari on a P. afra or the Crassula. Any attempt at carving will cause damage that will result in at least the loss of a branch. Even worse, deadly rot may set in and likely kill the plant. The segmented plant structure of the trunk and branches of Jade bonsai deserves some thought before pruning.
  • Make flat cuts only ... leave concave branch cutters and spherical knob cutters in your tool box! As an added precaution, leave a small stub just above the segment you want to keep. It will eventually fall or rub off.  Don't bother using cut paste on this plant, it seals itself.

  • All varieties propagate easily from cuttings, even large ones. Let the cutting sit a couple of days in the shade to ‘harden off’ before planting in a fast draining, dry soil mix. No rooting hormone is necessary. Even a leaf that falls on the soil while pruning, may root without any encouragement. It takes many years to have a good bonsai from a leaf, but it could be done!
  • Despite earlier writings on the subject, the fleshy branches of some succulents can be wired successfully. Although a succulent, it has a woody inner tissue.  It may seem like the wire is scaring the tree before it holds. However, once the wire is removed, the branch will bulge back without disfigurement.

Styles for Jade

This succulents trunk is usually very straight and upright. However, it can be suited to many bonsai styles.

If the long water-filled branches are allowed to grow naturally, their weight causes them to droop. Sometimes natural cascades are formed from the lower limbs. With frequent pruning, the small leaves readily form desirable pads.

Look closely at your subject before determining it must be a formal upright.

portulacria afra, jade plant, jade bonsai, elephant grass

Root-over-rock (another of Jim Smith's bonsai) is an excellent style for Portulacaria.

The roots readily establish in small pockets of soil and the exposed roots thicken and age surprising well.

(The plant must be tightly secured on the rock to get it started.)

All styles should be considered for jade bonsai. Drastic pruning - if necessary to create a great shape - is not a problem.   Just watch those segments.

If you enjoy 'drought smart plants' other than bonsai, click here.
Many make perfect accent plants.

Large Leaf Jade

bonsai picture, Jade bonsai, bonsai jade

You can see in this bonsai picture, the Crassula has much larger leaves.

It is easy to understand why the Portulacaria afra is preferred by many growers.

The "jade bonsai" shown here is located in the North Carolina Arboretum bonsai exhibit.

Synonyms: C. oblique and C. arborea.

Cork Bark Portulacaria ?

Yes, that's what Dave Bogan found!

See Dave's story about his cork bark jade bonsai here.

Where to Go From Here

Want to know even more about Portulacaria afra? Yes, there is more!

Robert J. Baran organizes, writes and manages the Phoenix, AZ Bonsai Society web site. This site has extensive information on this plant (among others), including taxonomy, horticulture and bonsai.  Robert refers to it as the “motherload of Portulacaria”! 

You may also want to see more Types of Bonsai Trees

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