Spekboom (Portulacaria Afra) is a succulent plant found in South Africa. It is indigenous to the Eastern Cape province and has been deemed as a miracle plant by many. It is a bright green, small-leaved plant with a contrasting red stem found in Southern Africa that seems ordinary but don’t be fooled – it is a very special plant!

Interesting Facts About the Spekboom Plant & Its Uses

The spekboom plant is a sprawling shrub or small tree; occurring in karroid (semi desert) areas and bushveld. It is usually found in rocky places and grows prolifically in parts of the Eastern Cape. The leaves are circular and bright green or pale grey. The plant has a glossy red-brown trunk and bears a dense crown of succulent leaves and stems.

It is most attractive in full bloom as a mass of soft pink nectar-rich flowers flourish at the ends of the branchlets. After flowering,  tiny papery three-winged fruits populate the unassuming spekboom plant. This versatile plant has several uses:

#1 Leaves are Edible

The taste of spekboom leaves are pleasant but changes throughout as the sun rises and sets. During the day leaves have an acid flavour and they become less acidic towards the evening. The delicious greenery is heavily browsed by game and firm favourite of several wild animals, especially elephants!

Spekboom aka ElephantBush, Dwarf Jade and PorkBush

The plant is also referred to as elephant’s food (and hence its name elephant bush) as itis what elephants love most and forms part of their vast diet. The Afrikaans word spekboom directly translates to ‘bacon tree’, which is how the name ‘porkbush’ came into being. Spekboom is an exceptional, fresh addition to salads and a small sprig will add a delicious flavour to a stew.

#2 Communities Use Spekboom Leaves for Their Medicinal Values

The leaves are used medicinally and in traditional home construction. Here are the most popular traditional and contemporary uses of spekboom leaves:

  • Sucking a leaf to quench thirst, treat exhaustion, dehydration and heatstroke.
  • Using crushed leaves to provide relief for blisters.
  • Chewing leaves can treat a sore throat and mouth infections.
  • Juiced leaves are used as an antiseptic and to soothe skin ailments such as pimples, rashes, insect stings and sunburn.
  • In certain areas, the stems are used to help build huts/homes. The stems are dried and used as thatch for rooves of the huts/homes.
  • In Mozambique, breastfeeding mothers eat spekboom leaves to increase their milk supply.
  • During famine, the Zulus eat the leaves raw.

The spekboom flowers are nectar-rich and provide food for many insects – endangered bees love them! This, in turn, attract insectivorous birds. Larvae of the Duadem butterfly also feed on the Portulacaria species.

Small yellow bird perched on a spekboom branch

The Cultivation and Growth Rate of Spekboom

This succulent plant grows fairly quickly and maybe closely planted to form a hedge, used as an ornamental succulent tree for a rockery, or planted to check soil erosion. It makes a beautiful bonsai or a great potted plant. It can be planted in a large container on a sunny patio, but it will need to be watered occasionally.

Spekboom can be propagated from cuttings, which must be kept dry to prevent rotting. Allow the cleanly cut edges of the cuttings to dry out for a few days before planting it in well-drained river sand. In order to grow spekboom successfully, the soil must be well-drained. Even tough it has no special requirements to grow, compost and fertiliser will encourage quicker growth. Cuttings are easily rooted in spring though autumn.

This miracle plant species can be beneficial in rehabilitating and restoring semi-arid and thicket habitats. More impressive still is the spekboom’s fantastic growth rate and its drought-resistance, making it an ideal plant for arid areas.

What Makes Spekboom Such a Special Plant?

This plant is vital to our ecosystem for several reasons. Here’s why:

#1 It Helps to Fight Climate Change and Air Pollution

This plant helps to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by acting like a carbon sponge, improving the quality of air we breathe. More specifically, spekboom can absorb between four to ten tonnes of carbon per hectare. This incredible tree uses carbon to make plant tissue and produce oxygen. According to The Spekboom Foundation, spekboom’s“capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions is compared to that of moist, subtropical forests. This remarkable plant is unique in that it stores solar energy to perform photosynthesis at night. This makes a spekboom thicket 10 times more effective per hectare at carbon fixing than any tropical rainforest.”

Excess carbon in the air is responsible for global warming so plant more spekboom to fight climate change!

#2 This Proudly South African Plant is Easy to Grow

Firstly, this indigenous evergreen plant is found predominantly in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. It is also one of the easiest plants to grow because it doesn’t need formal planting. Simply break a piece off and stick it in the ground in an area that gets lots of sun. Spekboom also responds well to pruning and grows densely, making it an excellent, hardy hedge. In late winter and spring, this plant flowers bloom in beautiful pink. The flowers are rich in nectar, bringing beautiful birds to your garden.

Spekboom bonsai plant on a wooden table

#3 It is Water-wise and Super Resilient

The low-maintenance plant can survive on as little as 250 – 350mm of water per year! Spekboom has a photosynthetic mechanism which allows it to adapt to all weather conditions so it can survive extreme conditions – from drought to frost. It is also an excellent soil binding plant that prevents soil erosion.

#4 SpekboomCan Live Up to 200 Years Old!

This plant propagates easily. A broken branch tossed onto the ground by a grazing elephant will grow roots and create a whole new plant. It can sprout up to five metres tall. It also stimulates biodiversity, enabling other plants to grow and live in its mini biome. If you’re looking for a versatile plant that can be turned into a hedge, a bonsai, used as ground cover or perhaps a large bush, spekboom is the plant for you.

#5 It is High in Basic Nutrients

This plant is edible and high in nutrients, especially Vitamin C, and a perfect addition to a salad. It is a firm favourite in the animal kingdom, especially for elephants, kudu and black rhino. If you find yourself surrounded by this incredible plant on a hike and you’re feeling a little tired, make sure to break off a piece and try it. Filled with moisture, it can even treat exhaustion and dehydration.

Elephant eating a spekboom plant

Spekboom is Beautiful When it Flowers

Spekboom flowers in South Africa’s spring and summer seasons, from September through to March. It is more likely to flower when it rains as flowering consumes a large amount of the plant’s energy. During a severe drought, the plant will reserve its energy to increase its chance of survival.

Spekboom is beautiful when it is in full bloom; the noticeable rosy flowers cover the succulent in a sea of pink. The flowers lure insects and birds from afar because of its nectar. The wonderful pop of colour is a welcome sight in the otherwise green or tawny landscape of the Eastern Cape.

Closeup of pink spekboom flowers

Plant a Spekboom Tree

A spekboom tree can grow up to four metres tall! On Shamwari Private Game Reserve, spekboom occurs naturally in many parts of the reserve. Often it is found in dense habitats known as thickets, wherein certain animals, such a black rhino roam. Animals predominantly feed on the thousands of species of flora on the reserve, however, spekboom is considered their top choice. It is planted at various lodges to aid in absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, improving the environment in which we live.

At Shamwari’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, the two elephants in our care absolutely love spekboom. They relish the juicy leaves that the tree provides. Their enclosure is filled with a plethora of trees and plants to sustain them as elephants can eat about 200 kilograms a day.

You can do your part in the fight against global warming by simply planting a spekboom plant in your garden. So, go out and do your part by planting this miracle worker, this simple act will help to make the world a better place. Make sure to look out for the unassuming spekboom during your next visit to Shamwari Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

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