Small Leaf Jade Bonsai
Care and Development

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

This African succulent can be a good indoor plant, but it needs lots of lightIt also likes to be on the dry side and frequent pruning will keep it in shape.

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.

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, prune frequently.  In the summer it is not unusual to prune twice a week, or more, 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.

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.

If you're growing outdoors, during rainy periods, move your ‘tiny leaf jades’ under the eaves of the house (or similar dry area) and hand water them as needed. They don't need the daily rains, especially if 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!

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.

Root Pruning and Repotting

Jade bonsai by the late Jim Smith, Vero Beach, FL

Over the years, the late Jim Smith, Vero Beach, FL developed numerous specimen jade bonsai.  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 bonsai (Jade) by Jim Smith'Jade' bonsai by the late James Smith

Fertilizer for Jade

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.

Jade Bonsai Notes

  • Never use petroleum based chemicals on succulents

Use sudsy detergent water, or even a garden hose may spray away minor problems.

  • Fungus can be a jade bonsai problem often caused by over-watering. Soft or soggy branches and trunks are usually a sign of too much water. If this happens, 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 roots 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 may cause damage resulting in at least the loss of a branch. Or worse, deadly rot may set in and kill an entire section.
  • 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.
  • Soil - Soil-less mixes are best. Whichever soil you use, it should be very fast draining and then adapt your watering accordingly.
Shohin Jade bonsai
  • 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!
  • Yes, Wire!  Despite earlier writings on the subject, the fleshy branches of some succulents  can be wired successfully. 
Wired small leaf jade bonsai by Jason Schley

The wired tree shown here is a variegated Portulacaria bonsai styled by Jason at Schley's Bonsai in Deland, Florida 

Although a succulent, jade has a woody inner tissue.  It may seem like the wire will scar 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. 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.

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.

Large Leaf Jade

Crassula arborea 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.

If you are a fan of succulent plants in general, Drought Smart Plants is a great site to visit!

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

See more Types of Bonsai Trees

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