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Garden Tips: “Elephant Food”

My favorite thing about gardening is the challenge of finding new plants. Unfortunately, many of these new plants have failed over the years. They require too much water or become brittle in summer. While I’m always open to trying new plants, it is great to have some that are reliable. The South African succulent plant Portulacaria Afra “Variegata,” also known as “Elephant Food”, is one of them. It doesn’t need any water after it’s established and is easy to propagate from cuttings. It’s pest-free, long-lasting, drought-resistant, and can look good all year (no “off” season). This low-growing cultivar features purple stems and variegated leaves (creamy and green, but at a distance giving the impression of yellow).

Imagine my surprise when I read a BBC report that said that the same plant that provided me so many gardening solutions could also be a solution to climate change. This is due to the versatility of Elephant Food’s photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process where plants create their own food from carbon dioxide, water and chlorophyll. It also uses energy from the sun. The stems and leaves of plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by opening tiny pores. While most plants do this during daylight, plants that live in extremely dry areas cannot afford to lose water vapor from the sun’s heat. Some desert plants like the cacti open their pores at night to capture carbon dioxide, so less water loss. The carbon dioxide is then converted into malic acid. This can be stored overnight, and the next day, when the sun shines, it can be used to make carbon dioxide for photosynthesis.

BBC reports that only a few plants can switch between one method and the other depending on how moist the air is. Elephant Food is one of these plants. These plants are able to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and provide a valuable “carbon sink”.

According to the South African government’s Working for Ecosystems Program, 2.5 million acres will be planted with wild Portulacaria. This giant thicket could sequester almost three times as much carbon as the U.S.’s emissions in 2019. There are many other benefits. The wild form is more upright than my variegated low-growing form. It can grow up to 16 feet and provides cooling shade. Local people can make a living by tending to the cuttings and planting them. It can reduce erosion and enrich the Elephant Food soil with its leaf litter. It could also be a valuable food source for wildlife, including elephants (which gives it one of its common names). Spekboom, Miniature Jade and other common names are also available.

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