Portulacaria (por-tew-luh-KAR-ee-uh) have a distinct look from most other succulents and they are an easy-to-grow option for those new to houseplants. These colorfully stemmed plants can serve as "thrillers" or "spillers" in potted arrangements. They have small, green leaves (sometimes variegated) and add a verdant touch with little maintenance.
- Form: Members of this family tend to grow tall, reddish stems lined with small, round leaves. They can grow into a branching subshrubs or low, creeping or trailing plants. They can even be pruned to be bonsai plants.
- Colors: The leaves are usually pure green or variegated with creamy white stripes. Some species also grow colorful stems, often red to purple, that contrast nicely with the vibrant green leaves.
- Flowers: Not regular bloomers, Portulacaria can produce sweet clusters of tiny pink to purple flowers in summer.
- Light: They are accustomed to sunny conditions in their native habitats, but they can tolerate indoor growing if kept in a sunny room.
- Soil: Like other succulents, they need gritty, well-draining soil to prevent standing water and rot. You can buy succulent / cactus soil at most garden centers or make your own with sand, pumice, or perlite (Succulent Soil Guide). Pick containers with drainage holes to help the soil dry out.
- Water: To grow a strong root system, drench deeply enough for water to run out the drainage hole of the container. Allow soil to completely dry out before watering again. Reduce watering frequency in winter.
- Hardiness: These soft / tender succulents will not tolerate a hard frost. They will happily spend summers outdoors but in most climates must overwinter indoors. (What’s my zone?)
- Propagation: They re-root easily from stem cuttings (Guide to Planting Cuttings). Regular pruning will also give them a more compact, bonsai look.
NOTES FROM THE NURSERY
This group of South African plants is particularly resilient. They have adapted to tolerate extended droughts in their arid habitats by switching from standard C3 photosynthesis to water-efficient CAM photosynthesis during droughts. Even when trampled by elephants, Portulcaria persevere and the broken stems quickly re-root and grow into new plants.
In frost-free, Mediterranean climates, Portulacaria are a staple in landscape shrubs and ground cover. Everywhere else, they make excellent additions to container arrangements, as their long stems add levels and vertical interest to a planting. These green plants tend to be more tolerant of low, indoor light conditions than most succulents, but they will look their best in bright sun.