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 is a good indoor plant, but it needs lots of light. It 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Yes, that's what Dave Bogan found!
See more Types of Bonsai Trees
is my free monthly newsletter. Subscribe to get current tips, ideas and photos that may not appear on this site.
Know the basics? Ready for more? Watch these amazing Colin Lewis bonsai class videos.
Craftsy sent me a copy of this class to review. Very impressed, we became an affiliate and receive a small commission on purchases. (Which helps support this site.)