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How to Grow and Care for an Elephant Tree (Operculicarya decaryi)


Operculicarya decaryi, commonly known as Elephant Tree, originates from Madagascar and, like most plants from this island, has many unique and exotic characteristics. This plant is a "natural" bonsai. It grows a thick, fat trunk quickly, and its roots also swell to form unique contorted and twisted designs. The leaves are very tiny, which work proportionally for that bonsai look. They can vary from green in part shade to a copper-bronze color in full sun. Trunk texture can vary from semi-smooth to an extreme bumpy-knobby look.

Elephant Tree is dioecious, which means that plants are either male or female blooming. You must have a male and female plant to produce seed.

Operculicarya decaryi was first described in 1944 by Joseph Marie Henry Alfred Perrier de la Bâthie (1873-1958), a French botanist who specialized in the plants of Madagascar. The specific epithet of this species honors the plant collector Raymond Decary.

Growing Conditions and General Care

Elephant Tree is quite a strong plant, and because it is grown in rather harsh conditions, it is a relatively adaptable species. This plant is drought tolerant and does well in full sun in most places. It cannot tolerate freezing conditions.

Grow and Care Elephant Tree (Operculicarya decaryi)

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It does not need an enormous amount of water, but during the growing season, it can enjoy quite a lot of water. Water a bit more regularly if in a container. Its roots will swell underneath the soil, and you will only know that is the case when you repot the plant.

In cold winters, plants will be more or less deciduous but will remain evergreen in warmer locations. Avoid watering during periods of dormancy.

Like most caudiciforms, this plant enjoys a fast-draining potting soil. Avoid peat if possible, and amend the soil with drainage material such as pumice, expanded shale, perlite, or a similar product.

Trim out interlocking or twiggy branches to keep the plant neat.


Elephant Tree can be grown from cuttings or seeds.

The more practical method of propagating this caudiciform is to break off a piece of its winding, tuberous root. In about three weeks, you will start to see tiny leaves forming off the tip. The leaves themselves are beautifully complex, and it is enjoyable to watch them develop out of a root that looks like a small potato. Do this in spring or early summer while the plant is waking up from its winter dormancy, otherwise, they may rot.

Seed grown plants produce better-looking roots which can be exposed as your plant grows. Also, by choosing parent plants with certain characteristics, seedlings will carry on these traits, like the extreme "bumpy" trunks.



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