The Phyto-Philes: Porkbush

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Porkbush by Willem.

Succulent Tree of the Addo Bush

This is the Porkbush, Portulacaria afra, known in Afrikaans as 'Spekboom' ('bacon tree'). This plant is a succulent shrub or small tree that is widespread, occurring in the southeast, east and northeast of South Africa. It occurs most abundantly in the Eastern Cape province, where it constitutes a specific kind of habitat and landscape called ‘Spekboomveld’. The most famous region of Spekboomveld is the Addo Bush. Here they grow in dense stands, and even though they only grow to a height of 3-4m/10'-13' they grow densely enough here to conceal and provide refuge for – elephants!

Last Elephants of the Cape

The Addo Bush was indeed the saving grace for the last of the Cape Elephants. From the Nineteenth to the early Twentieth Century, the white farmers of the Cape Colony have been in a bitter war against the elephants. But with their firearms, the humans eventually prevailed. They managed to exterminate all the elephants, except for two groups: one, sheltering in the tall forests of the Knysna region, and the other, a group that withdrew into the dense Addo Bush. In 1920, Major P. J. Pretorius was sent to kill the Addo Elephants, and he managed to kill 120 of them … but 11 survived by fleeing into the densest part of the bush. And there they survived, until in 1931 the humans realized their folly and decided to preserve the elephants instead. The Addo Elephant National Park was proclaimed to protect this herd. The Addo elephants, once left alone, thrived. Unfortunately the other Cape elephants, the forest elephants of Knysna, did not. They dwindled and today there may or may not be any of them left. The Addo National Park has recently been much enlarged, and now carries more elephants per unit area than any other place in Africa!

A Most Nutritious Plant

The big reason for the elephants success in Addo is the porkbush! This plant is edible and nutritious. Its soft fleshy leaves and stems are easy to browse. And the plants recover very easily and quickly, meaning that, unlike other areas where elephants often cause deforestation, the Addo Bush recovers and grows back as fast as the elephants can damage it. Trees pushed over simply keep on growing; branches torn off fall to the ground where they root and continue growing. The plants thrive in the dry, warm Eastern Cape where the rain is sparse but falls at any time of the year.

Many other animals apart from the elephants also browse on the porkbush. Even humans consume them! The succulent leaves are edible with a somewhat sourish but pleasant taste. Traditionally, mothers with babies eat them since they are believed to increase milk production. Farm animals also eat them. The leaves are also dried, ground up and used as snuff.

Practical and Ecological Uses

Porkbush by Willem.

The natural dense growth and nigh indestructibility of porkbushes also suit them for uses as living fences! It's as easy as pushing branches into the ground: they root, and keep growing, becoming taller, thicker and denser with time. Porkbushes also have a very valuable use in combating soil erosion. This is a big problem in many areas in South Africa. Overgrazing, overcollecting trees for firewood, and too-frequent bush fires have stripped away the natural vegetation in many regions to the point where rainwater washes away large amounts of valuable topsoil. Porkbushes can be planted to combat this erosion. They should be planted at the heads of erosion gullies where their strong, dense root systems will bind together the soil. And even if they themselves should be uprooted and washed away by floods, they will re-root wherever they are washed up.

Porkbushes are so widely cultivated in South Africa, that it's not clear where they are indigenous, and which regions they've been introduced into by people. At any rate it seems that the Eastern Cape, where they are most abundant, is the centre of their natural range.

Another ecological bonus of the porkbush is that it is said to be one of the most effective plants for absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and keeping it locked away in its tissues. This can help to combat global warming, the greenhouse effect being mostly due to carbon dioxide. But I must say, to combat the harm already done, millions or even billions of porkbushes will have to be planted! I'm up for the challenge, though. Personally I think that many other plants will also work. The specific kind of carbon-absorbing metabolism of the porkbush is not unique to it, but shared by many other kinds of succulent plant. I'm all for promoting and planting more succulents world-wide!

Growing the Porkbush

Aside from all of its practical value, the porkbush is actually also a pretty and interesting plant to grow! Its succulent, red stems and the fresh, light green leaves are attractive year-round. The flowers emerge in spring and are small, pinkish to purplish, star-shaped, and cover the bushes for a very impressive display. They attract numerous pollinating insects. The seeds are small and released from the numerous, papery, capsule-like fruit. A single plant will grow to a height of 3-4m/10'-13' and a similar spread. It can be single- or many-stemmed. The plants typically have a compact, dense shape, and can also be pruned with ease.

It is extremely easy to grow porkbushes. Simply snip of a twig or branch, let it dry out for a few days, and stick it in the soil. This is best done in spring or summer, unless the climate is warm year-round. Porkbushes will tolerate somewhat heavier rainfall than many other succulents but aren't suited for very wet climates. They tolerate only light frost. In colder, wetter climates they can be grown in hothouses or in pots or containers indoors. They are slow growers, but attractive even while still small. Because they have naturally small leaves and soft stems easy to shape, they are excellent to make Bonsai and intriguing succulent specimens out of.

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