How to Grow and Care for Dwarf Jade

dwarf jade plant

The Spruce / Krystal Slagle

Dwarf jade is a succulent perennial plant with small, fleshy, teardrop-shaped leaves and reddish-brown stems. In its native South Africa, dwarf jade is a fleshy-stemmed shrub or small tree, but for the rest of the world, it is normally grown as an easy-to-care-for houseplant.

If you don’t mind spending a bit of time pruning it, you can turn your dwarf jade into a bonsai tree. Or, you can grow it in a hanging basket and let it sprawl. When the rare blooms appear, they are found at the branch tips. Normally purchased as an already-established potted plant, dwarf jade is a very slow-growing but long-lived species; a small plant may take several years to reach a foot in height, but there are bonsai specimens that are more than a century old.

Common Name Dwarf jade, elephant bush, miniature jade, small-leaf jade
Botanical Name Portulacaria afra
Family Didiereaceae
Plant Type Succulent evergreen shrub, houseplant
Mature Size Up to 15 ft. tall as a native plant (but normally grown as a much smaller houseplant)
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Cactus/succulent potting mix, or sandy, gravelly garden soil
Soil pH Slightly acidic (5.6 to 6.5)
Bloom Time Late spring to early summer (flowers are indistinct)
Flower Color White, pink
Hardiness Zones 9-11 (USDA)
Native Area South Africa
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Watch Now: How to Grow and Care for a Dwarf Jade

Dwarf Jade Care

Dwarf jade is a low-maintenance succulent that stores water in its trunk and leaves so it can survive without regular watering, making it an ideal houseplant if you're less than fastidious about plant care. Occasional watering and a light monthly feeding from spring through fall are all that's needed to maintain magnificent plants. Dwarf jade positively thrives when moved outdoors to a spot with bright indirect light for the summer months. About the only genuine threat to these plants is frost and overwatering.

In gardens with an ideal climate and appropriately porous soil, dwarf jade can be grown as a permanent outdoor landscape plant, where it will eventually assume the stature of a shrub or small tree.

Dwarf jade grown as a bonsai
Dwarf jade grown as a bonsai photohomepage / Getty Images 
closeup of dwarf jade plant
​The Spruce / Krystal Slagle
dwarf jade plant
​The Spruce / Krystal Slagle 
Portulacaria afra 'Variegata'
Portulacaria afra 'Variegata' Elizabeth Fernandez / Getty Images 

Light

Dwarf jade requires at least five to six hours of bright indirect light each day and can tolerate partial shade, but take pains to keep it out of direct sunlight, which can burn the leaves. Ideally, an indoor houseplant should live in a south, east, or west-facing window that has a shade you can draw to block direct sunlight. As the plant grows toward the sunlight, rotating the pot will ensure that it grows evenly in all directions.

Outdoors, choose a location where the plant gets the required five to six hours of indirect sunlight but is protected from direct sunlight. For example, place it by an awning or in front of a lattice screen during the hot afternoon hours.

Moving a dwarf jade outdoors from an indoor location requires gradual acclimatization to sunlight. Increase the time the plant is exposed to sunlight little by little to prevent sunburn. Keep in mind that even after it has been acclimated, it needs protection from direct sunlight.

Soil

Excellent soil drainage is crucial for dwarf jade. Recommended soil mixes: commercial potting soil blended with fine gravel, pumice, or vermiculite in a 2:1 ratio; or cactus potting soil with perlite in a 2:1 ratio. Do not blend sand into the mix, as this is not an ideal growing medium.

Water

Indoors, dwarf jade has very low watering needs. When watering, let the soil dry slightly out before watering again. There is an easy way to check if it needs water: Put your finger into the top inch of soil. If it feels dry, it’s time to water moderately, which means thoroughly saturating the soil until water begins to come out of the pot's bottom drainage holes.

Dwarf jade does not like wet feet so make sure you don’t water so much that water accumulates in the saucer, and eliminate any excess water that pools.

If you bring dwarf jade outdoors during the summer, it will require more frequent watering, as the soil dries out more quickly outdoors. Again, monitor the soil moisture to determine when it’s time to give the plant moderate watering.

Temperature and Humidity

The ideal room temperature for dwarf jade is between 61 and 71 degrees Fahrenheit, but it will do fine if moved outdoors during much hotter conditions in the summer. But this plant not frost-hardy and will be badly damaged or killed if merely nipped by a true frost. If left outdoors for the summer, make sure to watch the weather forecast and bring it inside before the first fall frost.

Fertilizer

Dwarf jade has moderate fertilization needs. During the growing season, from spring to autumn, apply a standard houseplant fertilizer or a special succulent plant food about once a month.

Stop fertilizing during the winter and restart the monthly fertilizing in late winter with a 50 percent diluted fertilizer.

Types of Dwarf Jade

  • ‘Variegata’: Common names include rainbow bush, mini jade, or elephant bush, and it has cream-colored and green variegated leaves.
  • ‘Aurea’: Common names are yellow rainbow bush and yellow elephant food; it has leaves that are bright yellow when young and turn lime green as they age.
  • 'Prostrata': As the common name, trailing elephant bush, indicates, this is a low-lying variety often used as a ground cover.
  • 'Medio-picta': Also called the mid-stripe rainbow bush, this variegated type has a lighter center and leaves that have a flower petal-like form.
  • ‘Cork Bark’, is especially popular for bonsai enthusiasts because of its fissured, corky bark.
  • ‘Limpopo’ is a variety with much larger leaves.

Pruning


Do not water the plant before pruning because its trunk, stems, and leaves will be filled with moisture. Wait until the soil is dry. Then take these steps:

  1. Sterilize the blade of a sharp knife with a 10 percent bleach solution (one-part bleach to nine-parts water). 
  2. With straight cuts, prune out any dead or dying stems, and any shoots emerging from the trunk. Or, prune the plant to the desired shape.
  3. To encourage bushy growth, you can also pinch out the terminal buds with your fingers.
  4. The cuts will callous over in a few days; hold off on the watering until then.

Propagating Dwarf Jade

It’s nearly impossible to acquire dwarf jade seeds, but this is a very easy plant to propagate through vegetative methods. Even leaves that drop into the soil may sprout up as new plants. The normal method is to propagate dwarf jade from stem cuttings taken during spring or summer. Here's how:

  1. Take a cutting of 3 to 6 inches and place it on a piece of paper towel to dry out for a few days until the cut becomes callous.
  2. Dust the lower third or half of the cutting with rooting hormone, then plant it in moist but not wet appropriately-mixed soil. Place the planted cutting in a warm, bright location, shielded from direct sunlight.
  3. Monitor the planted cutting, and when the soil dries out, lightly spray it with water to keep it just damp. Once new growth appears, you can switch to occasional deeper watering.

Potting and Repotting Dwarf Jade

When grown as a houseplant, dwarf jade will do best in a breathable unglazed clay pot, though any pot that has good drainage will suffice. It can also thrive in shallow, wide pots, as the root system is relatively shallow. Hold off on watering it for a week after repotting. This allows the roots to dry out and become callous, which is needed for the plant to establish itself. Watering immediately after repotting can cause root rot.

Dwarf jade is a slow-growing plant that does not outgrow its pot quickly, but if you notice after some years that roots are clogging the drainage holes, it's time to repot in a slightly larger container.

Overwintering

Indoor potted dwarf jade plants should be allowed to become somewhat drier over the winter months, as this is a natural dormant period for them. Withhold watering until the bottom leaves begin to shrivel and dry up. As the days begin lengthening out again in spring, resume the normal watering pattern. Feeding should also be reduced for the winter months.

A similar winter reduction in feeding and watering should be applied to dwarf jades if you are growing them as permanent landscape plants in the garden.

Common Pests

Dwarf jade plants are rarely diseased. However, the plants can be affected by spider mites and whiteflies. Insecticidal soaps can eliminate pests. Mealybugs can be a large problem for dwarf jade plants. Remove them by hand using a cotton swab dipped in alcohol; repeat this treatment weekly until the bugs are gone. Do not use chemical sprays on succulent plants such as dwarf jade, as it can badly damage the leaves.

How to Get Dwarf Jade to Bloom

There's generally no reason why you want a dwarf jade to bloom since the flowers aren't very showy and the seeds produced aren't very practical to plant. But if you do want to experience what the blooms look like, try deliberately stressing the plant by withholding water and allowing the leaves to shrivel and dry out. Dwarf jade senses this as an environmental threat and often responds by sending out flowers as a preservation instinct. A long-established plant that has never flowered may bloom for the first time if you stress it by denying all water for a month or two.

Common Problems With Dwarf Jade


The main problem with dwarf jade occurs because of overwatering. If a dwarf jade plant's roots are surrounded by too much moisture and damp soil, root rot sets in, and the leaves will yellow, droop, and fall off. However, underwatering can cause the same results, though lack of water is also accompanied by shriveled leaves.

FAQ
  • What is the difference between dwarf jade plant and jade plant?

    With similar succulent leaves and fleshy stems, dwarf jade (Portulacaria afra) and standard jade plant (Crassula ovata and species) are very close in appearance, but the two are botanically unrelated. In contrast to jade plants, dwarf jade has much smaller leaves that grow closer together on thinner stems. In addition, dwarf jade is not poisonous, but jade plants are toxic to animals and humans.

  • Can dwarf jade be planted directly in the outdoor garden?

    Portulacaria afra loves extreme heat, high humidity, and gravelly soil such as found in its native location of South Africa, so if you have these optimal conditions, dwarf jade can be planted in the ground where it will grow easily. In its native environment, dwarf jade can grow up to 15 feet tall and sometimes more, so make sure to give it plenty of space if you use it as a landscape plant.

  • Are dwarf jade plants used as food?

    The dwarf jade (not jade!) is an edible succulent and rich in vitamin C. It can be added to salads, soups, and stews and it's a favorite snack for elephants, rhinos, tortoises, and goats.

Article Sources
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  1. https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/elephant-bush-portulacaria-afra/