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Plant Of The Week: Elephant Tree

Posted: 10/12/2011 7:21 am

If Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was a plant that crossbred with Beetlejuice, you would get the elephant tree. With its gnarled, thick, gray trunk, you can see how the Operculicarya acquired its nickname. This succulent is native to Madagascar and is in the same family as the cashew and sumac (Anacardiaceae). It is an unusual plant, such that when someone walks up to one at Sprout Home, their head will turn slightly with confusion, but then a smile will soon follow. Contorted yet graceful, the elephant tree makes for a perfect specimen plant and showpiece.

Elephant tree is easy to care for as well. Hardy and drought tolerant, it makes a great xeriscaping plant in warmer climates, and can grow in full sun or light shade -- at our Chicago store, we leave it outside in the summer to bask in the sun. As a general rule, keep this plant on the dry side for a watering schedule; it's a succulent. Watering is important spring through fall, but the elephant tree naturally goes through a winter dormancy and you can let it go drier then. And generally during the winter in warmer climates, it might keep some of its leaves and can simply be watered when dry, but for those of us who live in colder areas and will be bringing our little elephant inside, try to keep it in a cooler location and cut the watering back to force it through a dormancy. It will defoliate and then come back in spring with a vengeance. And although it's been said that the Operculicarya can handle frost, it's best to avoid freezing conditions.

Commonly referred to as a Madagascar bonsai, Operculicarya does serve as a great bonsai specimen and can be cultivated as such. It naturally grows fat roots which can be raised out of the soil when replanting and the arching branches covered with tiny, shiny green leaves are perfect to groom however you see fit. However, you don't have to stick to bonsai regiment. Go ahead and let the elephant tree grow at will. Although Operculicarya have been known to reach almost 30 feet back in their native Madagascar, they are slow growers and can get a little 'leggy' in lower light conditions. Thus even if you are not going to keep the plant as a bonsai subject, you still want to keep it neat in order to emphasize its dramatic growth pattern. If it does get to be too 'leggy,' it's okay to trim the branches back a little to foster interior growth. And while you're at it, prune any interlocking branches or branches that are growing towards the center of the tree to keep it healthy.

Finally, try positioning the Operculicarya on a console that is backed up to a bright background to accentuate its graceful form. Since the view changes depending on what angle you are viewing the tree, it would also serve well in the center of a room, such as on top of a dining room table or prominently displayed in an entryway. But the truth is that no matter where it is displayed, this little elephant will make an unusual pet for your home.

 
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