Spekboom - The Wonder Plant of South Africa

Spekboom (Portulacaria Afra) is a succulent plant found in South Africa. One of the many Spekboom facts is that it is indigenous to the Eastern Cape province and has been deemed as a miracle plant by many. It is a bright green, small-leaved plant with a contrasting red stem found in Southern Africa that seems ordinary but don’t be fooled – it is a very special plant!

Interesting Facts About the Spekboom Plant & Its Uses
The spekboom plant is a sprawling shrub or small tree; occurring in karroid (semi desert) areas and bushveld. It is usually found in rocky places and grows prolifically in parts of the Eastern Cape. The leaves are circular and bright green or pale grey. The plant has a glossy red-brown trunk and bears a dense crown of succulent leaves and stems.

It is most attractive in full bloom as a mass of soft pink nectar-rich flowers flourish at the ends of the branchlets. After flowering,  tiny papery three-winged fruits populate the unassuming spekboom plant. This versatile plant has several uses:

#1 Leaves are Edible
The taste of spekboom leaves are pleasant but changes throughout as the sun rises and sets. During the day leaves have an acid flavour and they become less acidic towards the evening. The delicious greenery is heavily browsed by game and firm favourite of several wild animals, especially elephants!

The plant is also referred to as elephant’s food (and hence its name elephant bush) as it is what elephants love most and forms part of their vast diet. The Afrikaans word spekboom directly translates to ‘bacon tree’, which is how the name ‘porkbush’ came into being. Spekboom is an exceptional, fresh addition to salads and a small sprig will add a delicious flavour to a stew.

#2 Communities Use Spekboom Leaves for Their Medicinal Values
The leaves are used medicinally and in traditional home construction. Here are the most popular traditional and contemporary uses of spekboom leaves:
  • Sucking a leaf to quench thirst, treat exhaustion, dehydration and heatstroke.
  • Using crushed leaves to provide relief for blisters.
  • Chewing leaves can treat a sore throat and mouth infections.
  • Juiced leaves are used as an antiseptic and to soothe skin ailments such as pimples, rashes, insect stings and sunburn.
  • In certain areas, the stems are used to help build huts/homes. The stems are dried and used as thatch for roofs of huts/homes.
  • In Mozambique, breastfeeding mothers eat spekboom leaves to increase their milk supply.
  • During famine, the Zulus eat the leaves raw.
The spekboom flowers are nectar-rich and provide food for many insects – endangered bees love them! This, in turn, attract insectivorous birds. Larvae of the Duadem butterfly also feed on the Portulacaria species.

Hectare for hectare, Spekboom thicket is ten times more effective than the Amazon rainforest at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One hectare of Spekboom can sequester between 4 and 10 tonnes of carbon per year. This makes it a powerful tool in the fight against climate change and the move towards a zero-carbon world.

It is very widespread in the east of South Africa (including Eswatini). In this moist climate, it is relatively rare and tends to favour dryer rocky outcrops and slopes. The plant is also found in much denser numbers in the dryer southern Cape. Here it occurs from the Little Karoo of the Western Cape, eastwards up until the thicket vegetation of the Eastern Cape.

But Spekboom can be grown almost anywhere in South Africa and is easily propagated, which is great news for budget gardeners. Simply cut or break off a piece of a spekboom, let it dry out for one or two days and then stick it in the ground.

Give it a little water every few days, and you’ll soon have a new spekboom plant of your own to help the environment and climate change!

In mountainous areas, spekboom trees can grow even on steep slopes. They suck up the moisture quickly and can store it for months. Spekboom forests can serve as grazing and browsing areas of last resort for wildlife and livestock, even when all else has withered in a drought.

Big potential benefits from restoring spekboom thicket ecosystems in South Africa

“Spekboom is an amazing plant. It can take root and regrow, just from simple cuttings from existing trees. It can quickly reform the soil because it continuously sheds a lot of leaves, which help to build up soil organic carbon,” explains ecologist Anthony Mills, who has published extensively on the sub-tropical thicket ecosystem of South Africa, one of the country’s lesser known plant biomes.

The South African Government sees thicket restoration as one of the low-hanging fruits for the achievement of national climate and biodiversity goals and recognizes that private investments are key. In 2007 it started what is arguably the largest ecological experiment in the world. “We have studied this thoroughly, and we believe there are big opportunities for ecosystem restoration investments across South Africa,” says Christo Marais, Chief Director at the Department of Environmental Affairs, which runs the programme.

The goal is to restore an area of thicket of over one million hectares, almost 200 times the size of Manhattan, providing work and income for thousands of people, for several years.

One of the next steps in scaling up the restoration could be to establish carbon markets—where governments, businesses or individuals purchase carbon credits in exchange for growing plants and trees—and livestock farms, where several thousand hectares can be replanted with spekboom, and where income from carbon credits can be combined with other income streams.

Credit: Shamwari



Head Office: Cape Province:
Oranjezicht, Cape Town, 8001


Garden Route:
Mossel Bay, 6500


North-West, Tswane, Limpopo:
Kosmos, 0261


Mbombela, 1200


Ballito, KwaZulu-Natal,