14 April, 2014

Spekboom at Addo

 - gardening for biodiversity
in Cape Town, South Africa

Elephant food (dwarf jade plant). In March 2010 we went to Addo Elephant Park. Near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

Portulacaria afra is recommended as suitable to plant in semi-arid places, against global weirding, the greenhouse effect. Spekboom Carbon and Poverty Alleviation Project. Because the plant is a succulent it is not subject to wildfire, and the carbon dioxide remains trapped. Unless of course you have elephants around. A mother elephant with a teenager a few years old, and this year’s baby. Watching a gardener’s nightmare of – I asked you to THIN that, not demolish it! But the plants have adapted. Instead of whining about the elephant damage and giving up. A branch left lying on the ground, has enough sap to keep growing, strike roots. Even the tiniest little cluster of leaves.

Addo elephants eating spekboom

I have captured this detail with lichen to show you that the plant earns its right to be called a tree.

Lichen on spekboom at Addo

Addo Portulacaria afra thicket

Elephants probably prefer the more succulent, leafy bits. But they are like a chipper clearing a heap of garden prunings. We watched this mother chewing away on that woody bit for a while.

Elephant chewing a woody bit of spekbom

See the difference between the lush green Addo bush - dense enough and high enough to hide these smallish young elephants (smaller than the ones further North in Kruger Park). And the wide dusty patch herds of visiting elephants have cleared around the water-hole.

Two young elephants at Addo
Emerging from the spekboom thickets and heading for the waterhole

From the PlantZAfrica website.
Portulacaria afra is related to the summer annual Portulaca. Grows 2 M in a garden, and 5M in the wild. Small pink flowers in late winter, bring insects, and birds. ‘Elephants eat the plant from the top downwards allowing the plant to spread itself vegetatively by spreading horizontal branches at ground level. Outside the park the plants are eaten by goats who eat the plant from ground level upwards’. The leaves of the pork bush can be eaten by us too, and have a sour or tart flavour. Highly favoured by tortoises.

Portulacaria afra leaves

Pork bush has the ability to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than an equal amount of deciduous forest. When other plants have to shut down and wait for rain, the pork bush can switch to CAM (Crassulaean Acid Metabolism) and can continue to grow and slurp up huge amounts of carbon. This allows the plant to excel in arid or semi-arid conditions.

The large spreading shrub shades the soil from the sun creating a favourable environment under the bush for insects and other wildlife, while the dead organic matter which accumulates under the bushes has an enriching effect on the soil. This improves the soil’s water-holding capacity which further benefits the pork bush as well as other plants and animals including micro-organisms.

Projects in the areas where the pork bush occurs use it to restore over-utilized natural habitats. At the same time these sites act as carbon sinks where carbon can be collected and used where it belongs and is productive to both humans and the environment. Potential earnings through carbon credits could be translated into social upliftment in these areas.

This versatile plant can be used in full sun or semi-shade in dry areas or even in well-watered flowerbeds. Spekboom in my garden in March 2012. It can tolerate moderate frost. Use as a screen or even a clipped hedge. It also makes a handsome and hardy Bonsai. Perfect choice for Cape Town's drought!

When we drove into the park, I looked at this and thought - If they have had a bull-dozer out, why don’t they tidy up the mess? Then – Silly, that was The Elephants! Addo story continues with Warthogs and more elephants

After the Addo elephants

Pictures by Jurg and Diana Studer  
of  Elephant's Eye on False Bay 

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  1. Diana - That certainly is a hectic photo of after the elephants have finished their meal... But, perfect for any nearby tortoises :)

  2. isn't that amazing, the Spekboom looks like our Jade plant, its amazing the elephants eat the hard bark and stalks as readily as the plump foliage ,it must taste good! No waste here!!!

  3. I'm amazed with the info regarding the Pork Bush. I'm assuming this is the Portulacaria afra? Wonder if we could grow it as a houseplant here.

    1. It's used for bonsai, so eminently suited as a pot plant.

  4. Sounds like the perfect plant for your climate! I had no idea elephants would eat it until reading this post. Beautiful photo of the elephants!

  5. Man, and people complain about deer damage here. Imagine elephants! Great pictures though, and I enjoyed learning about their relationship with this plant.