How to Care for Jade Bonsai [Updated Care Guide 2022]

Originating from Africa, the Jade tree is a soft-wooded shrub or small tree which measures up to 3m tall. 

Jade trees have thick trunks, fine branches, and succulent leaves. Sometimes small white flowers may appear in autumn, but only if the tree has been subject to droughts. The bark becomes reddish-brown as it ages and is usually green when young.

Jade bonsai by Jim Smith, Vero Beach, FL

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

Appearance

This semi-evergreen, upright multistemmed shrub/tree can grow to 8-15 feet in the ground in mild conditions (hardy in zones 9-11). 

The oval to round shape of the fleshy and flattened leaves, which are 1/2 – 3/4 inches long. The opposite leaves, glossy emerald, are borne on brittle and fleshy, reddish-brown stems with tapering branches that mature into a grayish shade. 

The trunk and branches are succulent but have a woody inner layer. 

Flowering

In late spring and early summer, plants produce tiny, inconspicuous pink and white flowers. This is usually in their natural habitat. These flowers are very rare in cultivation. 

The flowers are produced in clusters along the branches’ ends. Star-shaped flowers are distinguished by their 5 pointed petals and protruding stamens. 

The pollinated flowers are followed closely by tiny, transparent to pink, berry like dry fruits that each contain a single seed.

Growing

Portulacaria Afra requires bright light and well-drained soil to thrive. 

You can use a cactus mixture or a custom-made potting medium that contains large amounts of poultry grit or pumice. 

To allow for more moisture to evaporate, unglazed pottery is preferred. Although a south-facing window is the best indoor spot, it’s also possible to have west or east exposure. 

Too much sunlight can cause leaves to become yellowed or reddish at the tips, which is something some people like. 

You may need to experiment with the location to get the best growth. After the danger of frost has passed, potted plants can be moved outdoors for their growing season. Gradually adjust the plant to the new environment.

If a plant is suddenly moved from within a house to the full sun outside, it will likely sunburn. 

When night temperatures fall below 40F, bring it back inside. If it gets less sunlight than outdoors, it may lose some of its leaves as it transitions to winter home.

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

Each leaf’s rim will turn a lovely pink if it gets enough sunlight.

Pruning

The stiff and irregularly arranged branches can grow into a thicket if left unpruned. If left unpruned, heavy branches can fall off and root where they fall to start new plants.

Watering

The elephant bush can withstand drought, but it will grow faster and more lush if given enough water. 

It is more susceptible to root rot in moist soil if it is not given enough water. 

Reduce watering during winter. Withhold water until the lower leaves start shriveling. This could take several months if the indoor environment is not unusually bright or warm. Once the day length increases in spring, you can resume watering sparingly. Let the soil dry to an inch before watering again. 

Propagation

This plant can be grown from seeds, but it is more commonly propagated from cuttings. 

In warm climates, stem cuttings can be rooted in as little as 4 to 6 weeks. 

Cuttings should be taken in spring and summer. Allow the cut portions to dry for several days before you put them in the rooting medium. They can also root in water. Even leaves cut while trimming or performing other activities can root themselves.

Jade Bonsai Pests

Although this plant is not susceptible to pests, mealybugs can pose a problem indoors. 

It is resistant to pesticide sprays like many succulents. 

Avoid petroleum-based chemicals. If you are unsure, test it on a few leaves first to make sure it does not cause damage.

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 Portulacaria afra - Elephant Tree Bonsai
Jade Portulacaria afra – Elephant Tree Bonsai

Further Jade Bonsai Information

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. 

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.

Extra Root Pruning and Repotting Tips

Jade bonsai by 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.

Another ‘jade’ bonsai by the late James Smith

Jade Bonsai Notes

  • In arid areas there are few problems with Portulacaria afra, the climate is perfect. In more humid and rainy zones, sheltered areas and indoors may be better environments – also, some pests are more likely.
  • Never use petroleum-based chemicals on succulents. They can cause major leaf loss (although they sometimes return). Use sudsy detergent water, or even a garden hose may spray away minor problems.
  • Fungus is a jade bonsai problem often caused by overwatering. Soft or soggy branches and trunks are 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 will cause damage that will result in at least the loss of a branch. Even worse, deadly rot may set in and likely kill the plant.
  • 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. Although a succulent, it has a woody inner tissue.  It may seem like the wire is scaring the tree before it holds. However, once the wire is removed, the branch will bulge back without disfigurement.

Bonsai 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.

Other Interesting Facts About Jade Bonsai

The leaves are edible and can be used to make soups, salads, and other dishes.

Because it is resilient to heat and drought, both domestic and wild animals enjoy browsing it.

It is also a favorite food for tortoises. 

The plant is eaten by elephants, who leave behind the spreading, lower branches and many broken twigs. They also remove the plant leaf branches, rooting to grow and thicken the colony. These thickets are called “spekboomvelds”. Goats and other animals eat the plant, which prevents it from surviving. 

The decline in elephant bush population is due to overgrazing and poor regeneration, except in areas like parks or reserves where there are few non-native browsers. P. afra seeds has great difficulty germinating within its native habitat.

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