Spekboom – Portulacaria Afra – what I like to call “the magical carbon-trap tree”
We bought a Spekboom / Portulacaria Afra plant (otherwise know as ‘elephant food’) from Kirstenbosch Botanical gardens in Cape Town, South Africa. If you have not been to Kirstenbosch – put it on your to do list, it is beautiful. The spekboom is a succulent plant with amazing properties, I will write you a quick summary on the plant. I can tell you it is probably the best plant used as a carbon trap for carbon storage against global warming. Before you think this sounds boring, it really is an amazing plant. I wish everyone could have their little ‘green’ green plant. If you translated it directly from Afrikaans to English it would be named Bacon tree/bush.
Firstly you would ask, what is carbon storage again? Carbon capturing and storage is where carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are captured and the carbon dioxide is prevented from entering the atmosphere – in other words less pollution. Pretty awesome. The Spekboom is one of the best plants to do this. There are big plans and projects already in progress to use these plants as carbon traps.
Where does the Spekboom grow naturally? Apparently it might have been found in Mexico and Spain as well, but has been wiped out mostly. It is mainly found in the Eastern cape of South Africa where it has become known as “Elephant food.” The Eastern Cape is well known for its elephants and they love to eat the Spekboom. The Addo Elephant Park is filled with Spekboom. There is a big movement to restore the natural habitat of the plant in especially the Eastern Cape.
What is significant (or rather extremely special) about this plant?
1. Firstly it grows in incredible circumstances. It grows well in dry barren ground, but also grows just as well in flower beds that get watered regularly. Back in the day livestock farmers used it as fences, it was easy to plant, the livestock could eat the leaves from the inside of the fence, while on the outside it could grow thick and strong. You can plant a few sticks apart, sticking it in the ground and water regularly – it will soon shoot roots and start to grow. You can also leave the tip of a branch in water until it shoots roots and then plant the cutting. As mentioned the plant grows well in dry and wet conditions, it has the ability to switch its photosynthetic mechanism. Meaning it can be like a rain forest plant in wet conditions or a desert cactus in dry conditions.
2. It is edible. As mentioned the plant is known as “Elephant food.” Animals in the wild eat the plant, it is wonderful food as it is an evergreen and provides food during the cold winter months when food is scarce. Humans can also consume the leaves of the Spekboom. Apparently (I have not tried it yet) the leaves taste a bit sour, a lemon-tipe taste, perfect to use in salads they say.
3. It also stimulates the production of milk. This has been confirmed by Xhosa tradition where the grandmother would eat the plant leaves in order to be able to provide milk for her newborn grandchild when the young mother had to help gather wood and provide for the home. Dairy farmers have also confirmed that the milk production of their milk cows’ has sky rocketed when grazing in spekboom fields.
4. The plant contains a good amount manganese, cobalt and magnesium. It contains iodine and selenium in large quantities as well.
5. Finally, but mostly, carbon storage. The plant absorb carbon dioxide, but does not release it into the air again. (I will post my references at the bottom of the page if you would like to read up more on the science part). The carbon dioxide and plant matter end up in the ground, the plant is not flammable and cannot burn. As we all know there is a massive threat of global warming, the reason for that is CO2 gasses building up. The spekboom is one of the very few natural plants identified to be used as a carbon trap to help relieve this problem in the future. They are planting fields and fields as carbon trap projects.
The growth of the plant:
it is an evergreen succulent. It can reach 2.5m – 4.5m in height (most resources seems to say 2.5m high). The plant can live up to 200 years. It flowers in spring or early summer after good rains – I have not seen the flower myself before, hoping our plant will flower as it currently is more of a house plant, will definitely be posting a photo should it decide to flower. They say the flowers give delicious honey as well.
Having read that the carbon dioxide gets stored in the soil by the plant made me wonder about the soil quality. I found a resource stating that the Spekboom actually improves soil quality. That it stimulates the return of biodiversity in the area. The reason for this is the soil-binding and shading nature of the plant. It also reduces erosion.
Imagine this plant growing next to all high ways and in parks (or in pots if it must) in industrial areas where pollution is a massive problem. The best solution for clean air, completely natural, why not!? Still NO reason to pollute!
The following resources were used:
I trust you found this as interesting as I did! I am astonished at my fabulous little power plant. (excuse the pun). If it grows too big for its pot it will definitely find its spot in our garden when we move.
Gardening is a treat, growing plants with meaning and amazing functions is extremely rewarding.