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Home / How To / Gardening / Plant Portraits / Rainbow bush or variegated elephant bush

Rainbow bush or variegated elephant bush

By Nancy Norris | April 27, 2022

A xerophyte that can be made into a tidy shrub

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A miniature “tree” next to a model house and pickup truck.
A miniature “tree” next to a model house and pickup truck.
The rainbow bush’s red stem is accented nicely by the red pickup truck. Photo by Nancy Norris

Common name: Rainbow bush, variegated elephant bush

Botanical name: Portulacaria afra f. variegata

Plant type: Perennial

Plant size: 4′ high x 4′ wide (easily kept much lower)

USDA Hardiness Zones: 10-11 (protected in other zones)

Cultural needs: Gravelly, well drained, neutral, or slightly acidic soil; full sun

The elephants and deer-like kudu of South Africa graze on elephant bush or spekboom, as the native people know it. This xerophyte remains succulent with little moisture but is okay in moister beds. The pictured rainbow bush, a variegated form with a green patch in the middle of a thick, cream-colored leaf, grows more slowly and prostrate than its ancestor, making it a tidy shrub. Leaving multiple stems creates a bush as wide as it is high. Training the plant into one central trunk makes it a good bonsai, highlighting the smooth red “bark”– thus its other name: mini jade.

Close up of rainbow bush branch
Note the red “bark” and tiny leaves in this closeup photo. Photo by Nancy Norris

Pink flowers are rare and seeds even rarer, so it’s evolved a symbiotic relationship with grazing animals, which scatter uneaten branches that quickly root into surrounding soil. Gardeners can easily multiply rainbow bush by laying cut stems on soil until roots sprout. Bring cuttings indoors for overwintering on a sunny windowsill if you live in colder hardiness zones. Find this plant in the cactus/succulent area of your local greenhouse. Display it where the stems will pick up red color from cars, roads, and roofing, as in the Tabers’ Rios Canyon Railroad seen in the photo above.

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