Dwarf jade. Portulacaria afra

One of my favorite species for bonsai is the dwarf jade.
A great deal of traditionalists don’t like them, though. The refrains are
“it’s not a real tree”
“the leaves are funny”
“I always over water them”
…etcetera etcetera etcetera….

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Looks like a bonsai to me, how about you?
Jim Smith has been growing them as bonsai for 30 years. Is that long enough for people to accept them as bonsai? Many people kill shimpaku junipers yet they are still considered, along with Japanese black pine, the ultimate bonsai.
A juniper is easier to kill than a portulacaria.
It’s my aim in this post to demystify the dwarf jade a bit and maybe convince some of its detractors out there that this tree (it is a tree) is a legitimate bonsai.
It is native to the southern part of Africa. It is called “spekboom” in Afrikaans. Which is literally ” fat pork tree”
In that area the portulacaria makes up to about 80% of an elephants diet. But the growth habit of the tree and the eating habits of the elephants ensure that the plants never get overgrazed. The elephants eat from the top down and make a mess, dropping pieces on the ground. The tree responds by budding back densely and all those pieces that fall, root where they lie, making more trees. Cool, huh?
There are areas in South Africa called “spekboomveldt” which are dense thickets of portulacaria. The tree is so prevalent in the countryside there is even a river called the Spekboom river.
The elephant teaches us 2 things:
1. Trim them often, they respond well.
2. Take cuttings. It’s easy. (I’ll tell you how.)
Amazingly, the portulacaria is a plant that can switch how it performs photosynthesis. The C3 method (which is how most plants work) to the CAM method (how succulents work) and back.
Photosynthesis (simply) is taking water and carbon dioxide and,using the energy of the sun, jamming the molecules together to create sugar and oxygen. This process occurs during the day. The co2 is taken in through pores (called stomata) that can open and close.
At night the plant uses the sugar and oxygen in the air and gives off co2. This is respiration.
A regular c3 photosynthesis plant will, in times of high heat and humidity, revert to respiration during the day. And this weakens it.
The portulacaria, though,switches to CAM photosynthesis (which is the stomata closing during heat of the day but, then opening at night, taking in co2, storing it, and making sugar in the day when the sun is out.)
An efficient adaptation in the desert.
By closing the stomata the plant will not lose water through transpiration (which is how plants move water and nutrients from the roots to the tips, like blowing on a straw that is in a liquid. The liquid travels up the tube from the force of the blowing…..)

Anyway, back to some bonsai.

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There’s the master himself – Jim Smith

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And a mature, medium sized tree.

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This is how most people see them.
If that’s the only way you see a tree you wouldn’t think much of that species either, now, would you?
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This is one of my oldest. I just cut it back so it’s a little sparse but you can see the structure. Looks like an old live oak tree. Examining it, I see it needs some wiring, but it looks good as it is too.

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Here’s one still in training. Needs some more wire too but, as I’ll explain later, that can wait.

Let’s style one from a stock plant.
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I got this from Jim Smith originally.
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A lot of branches to work with. I got it to take cuttings of off as well as a specimen tree.
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This one branch, if it were in a 8 inch pot, would go for anywhere from $15- $25 at a bonsai nursery.
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To root it, simply allow the cut end to dry for a few days and put it into some coarse soil. I use leftover bonsai soil but people like Jim or Erik use a regular potting soil. Don’t water it until you see new growth. That’s right, I said DON’T.
Most plants need water to throw roots out. So it’s the presence of water that grows roots.
A succulent is backwards. The absence of water is what stimulates root growth. The roots are thrown out to seek water.
So you don’t need humidity domes or rooting hormone or mist systems.
(Remember those elephants?)
Just stick the cutting in soil in a pot and let it grow.
The only thing that I’ve seen used (but not used myself, so I don’t know the efficacy of it) is a powdered fungicide that the cutting is dipped into that helps prevent the cutting from rotting.

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There’s a good view of the front.
Now some trimming.

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Prune all the branches growing straight up.

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Or superfluous branches

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And those growing in awkward places

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Like here.

Also prune larger calliper branches out of the top of the tree and cut the branches for taper. The further out on the branch, the finer the branching.
This is one of those “illusion” design techniques used to make a small tree look like a large, old tree.
The catchphrase is ” taper, taper,taper!”

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Snip

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The branch just to the bottom right will be the new top branch. Along with the ones around it. It is a crown you should aim to build. Not a single “apex”.

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There we are. A little less haphazard.
I didn’t trim all the upward pointing branches

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If I trim this I waste the time it took to grow it.

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With some wire we can turn this branch into the beginning of a pad.

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Like so.
Let’s deal with the roots now.

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Looks intimidating.

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Hmmmmm….

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Just a little scary.
It is with the roots where we can kill this plant. So we will be gentle.

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Well. Not that gentle. The roots needed a good raking. Real good. I use a single hook as opposed to the 3 tined rake that comes with most tool sets.

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Like so. I made my own but they are available in all the stores and online.
It’s my experience that the single hook does less damage to the roots.
I made sure that there were no crushed or split roots and that all the cuts were clean.
To place the tree in the pot

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Fill it with some soil. Make the pile higher where the center of the root ball will be.

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Push down and twist it into the soil.
Don’t lift it like this but

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It should go into the soil. Be gentle but make sure it goes into the soil.
This way it will eliminate any errant air bubbles under the root ball.

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And,of course, I always tie the tree in.
At this stage I don’t worry about looks. I don’t want the tree to move. We’ll worry about aesthetics later. 2-3 years from now.

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I could wire the tree now but I don’t have a need. This will bend easily

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Straight

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Bent.

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That bend in the trunk at the bottom left was completely hidden beneath the soil. Quite the pleasant surprise.
The branching is all there for a good tree. I searched long for this tree among the hundreds available at Jim’s nursery.
There might be some left. Maybe. I’m greedy.

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I think you’ll agree.
I worked on all these today.

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The next step is the most important.
I’ve already alluded to it.
DON’T WATER UNTIL YOU SEE NEW GROWTH.
It is this step that will ensure that the tree will survive the root work.
And it is overwatering at this point that kills them.

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The left side of the base rotted from improper initial potting technique.

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It ruined the nebari and undercut the base quite a bit.
I removed it from the soil it was in, let the rot dry out and repotted it again. And I’ve kept soil away from the cavity.
The wounds on a portulacaria don’t callous as a tree would. I liken it to scabbing; the wound dries and then the first layer peels and under that is new bark. The scar will eventually disappear after several exfoliations.

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This tree rotted through the middle and at the roots, with careful watering and care it was saved.

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It’s one of my favorites now. I think it looks a bit like a baobab tree now.

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The picture doesn’t do justice to the actual tree (as always).
Next year I’ll repot it into a decent pot and do a little styling.
I will end with this, a little known fact about the portulacaria afra is that it’s edible. Make sure it’s the dwarf jade and not a crassula (true jade) species.
Make sure you haven’t sprayed chemical,et al,on it. Take the tender new leaves and taste. It tastes a bit like Granny Smith apples. It goes good on salads.
It is said that it helps with dehydration. Cattle fed it as fodder drink considerable less. On a hot day in the bonsai garden chew on a few stalks. You’ll be trimming your tree AND staying hydrated, at the same time.
Try a dwarf jade, as a bonsai or just a snack. You’ll be surprised either way.

12 responses to “Dwarf jade. Portulacaria afra

  1. Great article! I have often admired well trained Jade trees but have never attempted one myself. The first specimen you have pictured really represents some successful outside-of-the-box thinking to me. I would never consider training a jade in a literati style because of its heavy foliage but your tree looks great! I’m really enjoying your blog.

    • Thanks sir!
      The literati was originally styled by my friend Rick Jeffery. I just had the opportunity to get it.
      The leaves can be reduced by pinching to where they are only 1/4 inch big so don’t let the big leaves deter you.

  2. Great post! I disagree, too, with the purists: if you can get a believable tree image out of it, why not use it?

    I often recommend Portulacaria for children. It’s a survivor to begin with, so can better tolerate learning mistakes. (By the kids and by parents trying to help!)

  3. Pingback: Orchids and Succulents in the September Garden. | small house/BIG GARDEN

  4. I have a variegated baby jade some of the leaves are wrinkly and are falling off.
    This is my second one. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. It’s in front of a window and I water when it’s dry. Hope you can help. Thank you
    B

    • Which leaves are doing this? The older, lower ones will do that as the branch grows. If the tip is still normal then you don’t have anything to worry about. Trim it more and you’ll get more leaves lower.
      The variegated jade does require more light generally because it has half the chlorophyll.
      And once a jade is established you don’t have to let it get bone dry before watering.
      Growing anything inside is always going to be more difficult than outside.

    • It’s hard to say how long exactly due to relative humidity but as little as a day up to about two weeks. If the plant is very healthy the cutting might start to put roots out before you put them in soil.

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