It’s a winter tradition for me to do at least one post about tropical species for bonsai. Today’s subject is Dwarf jade, Portulacaria afra, otherwise known as Elephant bush or Spekboom. Dwarf jade is a succulent plant that in the tropics can grow up to 15 feet tall. Because it has a shrub or tree form along with a woody stem, it adapts very well to bonsai culture.

Best of all, it’s the bonsai species you only need to buy (or nab) once. More on that below.

This specimen has been grown from a tiny cutting in just two years’ time. This photo is from September 7th of this year.

This photo was taken two months later, in November. Dwarf jade grows very fast once it gets established; you just have to keep it fertilized and watered.
And after a quick trim. The structure of this bonsai is taking shape nicely, as it continues to grow out. Once you’ve built a basic structure on any bonsai, grow and clip is (in my experience) the best way to complete the development and refine the tree. You’ll always need to do some wiring, but it should be minimal when the tree is nearing completion.
Here’s the tree today. I’ve previously cleared out a lot of the interior foliage, which helps to make the structure more visible and visually pleasing. There’s a relatively long shoot that I’ve spotted that’s got to go.

This is where the Dwarf jade becomes a “perpetual motion” bonsai machine.

First, here’s the current state of my “Spekboom” bonsai. I’ve utilized strategic wiring and mostly pruning to define the superstructure of the tree from base to apex. By keeping the interior mostly open, I’ve created the illusion of depth and age (beware of letting your bonsai become excessively bushy, hiding the trunk and branches).

This is literally two and a half year’s work. The base is 3/4″ above the root crown, and that’s starting from a cutting 1/8″ thick (and going through two winters spending a lot of time indoors).

Here’s what I cut off the specimen above – one of many 1/8″ sprigs, with the lower leaves removed. This cutting gets stuck right into a pot of soil. (Note: most pros will tell you to leave the cuttings out for a day or two so the cut ends will dry; there’s nothing wrong with doing this, but I’ve never found it necessary.) In a few weeks’ worth of warm weather, it’ll root.

This is the magic of Spekboom. Once you’ve bought your own specimen or, alternatively, if you can nab a small cutting from a fellow grower when he’s pinching his, you’ve got the species forever. Every cutting roots, and they grow fast as long as you provide basic care.

Earlier this year, I cut off a couple of branches from my main specimen as part of the grow and clip process. Of course, I stuck them into a pot full of soil. Of course, they rooted. I had a couple of very small pots handy, so I though it would be fun at this time of year to pot them up (if you look closely you can see new growth on this one; that’s what comes from a few winter days with highs in the 70s).

There’s no real design to this one yet, but I pinched off enough extra “branches” to produce something of a structure for starters. The 4″ Chuck Iker round is lovely, and really suits the future tree.  I will get thickening of the base in this pot, by the way.  Right now it’s 3/8″.

Here’s an important tool I made in order to pot up the next specimen. Both it and the one above were rooted well enough, but with Spekboom it takes a while to get thicker, more stable roots at the surface. Each ended up being pretty top-heavy, so that made potting them a challenge. The Iker pot was deep enough that I was able to use soil and the moss covering for this purpose. The pot below was not as easy.
This is a really nice Shawn Bokeno oval. At 4″ long, however, it’s a really shallow piece that makes potting an unstable tree difficult. But I needed to put some curve into the trunk, so I fashioned a piece of wire into something of a stand that could sit in the bottom of the pot and help hold the tree up. It worked pretty well – that plus soil and some moss should hold things in place until I get enough root growth this coming spring.

This one also has a 3/8″ trunk base, and will remain a small bonsai as it develops.

And that’s the story of the bonsai species you only need to buy (or nab) once. Get yourself a Dwarf Jade (Spekboom), and have a lifetime of bonsai fun.

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