A Guidebook On Operculicarya Decaryi Care – Growing Your Elephant Tree The Right Way

FamilyAnacardiaceae (Sumacs, Cashew)
Other namesElephant Tree
OriginMadagascar
SunlightFull sun Partial Sun
TemperatureMinimum 30°F
ClimateTropical Dry AridSunny  
PropagationSeeds Cuttings
Height20 -30 feet in the wild
EvergreenYes
Width4 feet – 5 feet on average
Pests and diseaseMinor issues with insects
OthersEvergreenRed flower colorWinter bloom-time

Native to the tiny island of Madagascar, specifically Toliara Province of southwest Madagascar, the Operculicarya decaryi is an exotic deciduous tree from the Anacardiaceae (cashew/sumac) family that can reach heights of up to 30ft with a gnarly 3ft wide trunk in the wild.

It derives its unique name – Elephant Tree – from its grayish bumpy, gnarly, thickening trunk.

The Operculicarya decaryi‘s trunk is one of the unique features of this particular succulent. We recommend allowing the plant to grow a straight trunk up to your preferred height, upon which you can start pruning to begin shaping its final form.

Pruning encourages lateral limb growth and side branching. 

This twisted, knobby trunk, called a caudiciform, has over-arching branches with a canopy of round, shiny, dark-green tiny leaves.

During winter, you are most likely to observe tiny brownish-red flowers poking out the tip of the branches. A closer examination will show the odd-pinnate alternating leaves turning a slight tinge of red as the weather gets cooler.

DID YOU KNOW? 

Operculicarya decaryi was named after the botanical collector Raymond Decary.

Operculicarya decaryi
Photo by Pinterest

SOIL

Like most other succulents, the elephant tree needs a soil structure with substantial aeration and excellent drainage properties.

Succulent City Pro-tip:

Include at least 50% of inorganic material for this particular succulent.

A cactus soil mix with a pH of 5 to 6 will do wonders for your much beloved Operculicarya decaryi. Cactus soil-mix ticks all the right boxes – adequate porosity, unhampered drainage, and unrestricted airflow.

You can get a batch of cactus soil mix from your local gardening store or order a bag online from Amazon.

However, if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, then you can make your very own DIY succulent soil mix from home, as detailed in this informative article.

Learn how to DIY your planting soil at home: How To Make Your Succulent Soil At Home.

WATERING

It is a well-known rule of thumb to only water succulents when the ground is dry and crumbles to the touch. Take a pinch of dirt and if it’s still wet, postpone watering for a day or two.

The elephant tree will require very slight watering during the winter season, gradually increasing towards the summertime.

When watering, saturate the soil through and through; do not, however, drown the plant. Just enough to penetrate the bottom reaches of the ground. Preferably till you see a drop or two coming out the drainage hole.

Excess watering will put your Operculicarya decaryi at a disadvantage with a high-risk factor of developing the dreaded root-rot disease.

Learn more about root-rot: What is root-rot? How to fix it.

PLANTERS

There are many kinds of planter pots available out there nowadays. You can find planters made from all sorts of different materials – from plastic, stone, metal, and more.

For the most part, none is specifically better than the other. As long as your planter has a drainage hole to facilitate the discharge of overflow, then you’re good to go.

A drainage hole may seem like a minor detail, but trust me, it’s crucial to growing a healthy succulent.

Succulents don’t appreciate soaking in stagnant water, which is what you will get without a drainage hole. When all is said and done, whatever planter your choose, please ensure it has a drainage hole drilled into the bottom.

With that said, we at Succulent City tend to prefer terracotta/ceramic planters for their natural porosity and earthy vibe.

Learn how to choose the best pot for your succulents: Choosing suitable pots for succulents – A guide by Succulent City

beatiful potted elephant tree
Photo by Pinterest

PRUNING AND MAINTENANCE

Pruning is a big part of the Operculicarya decaryi succulent. With its unique and instantly striking visual, its reputation relies on its one-of-a-kind, bonsai-like image.

You may need to prune back any out-reaching branches now and then to maintain the overall bonsai look of the plant. Snip any twiggy or interlocking stems to keep the plant neat.

PROPAGATION

Operculicarya decaryi is a dioecious succulent and quite an easy succulent to propagate via both seeds or cuttings – whatever your preference.

What is ‘dioecious’? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines dioecious as:

  • Having male reproductive organs in one individual and female in another.
  • Having staminate and pistillate flowers borne on different individuals.

In layman’s terms, it means that any Operculicarya decaryi succulent is either a male or female. If you wish to produce a seed, you must have male and individual female plants.

The Operculicarya decaryi seeds are roughly a quarter of an inch in size. You can quickly know it is ripe because it will turn a distinct dark purple color.

Most succulent enthusiasts prefer propagating by seeds claiming that plants grown from seeds produce visibly better than roots. These roots can then be exposed when the plant grows to enhance the bonsai-like aesthetic.

Another note is that seedlings will inherit traits passed on from their parent plants. So if you come across an elephant tree with specific rare characteristics you admire, it is easy to introduce and pass on these characteristics to the next generation of Operculicarya decaryi.

Mature plants have small reddish to brown flowers at the tips of the branches in late winter, with male and female flowers on separate plants (dioecious). Small, rounded fruits are produced from yellow-orange/red on female plants. Seeds are viable only when male and female plants flower together.

Besides, Operculicarya decaryi will do well in partial sunlight, full sunlight, and anything in-between.

If your Operculicarya decaryi is potted, you should take it out and let it get direct sunlight for 6 hours. Once the 6 hours are up, you can move it back onto the porch.

So remember, half the day direct sunlight, half the day partial sunlight.

operculicarya decaryi next to the window
Photo by Pinterest

TEMPERATURE

This succulent is a winter-hardy plant, and while it can survive temperatures as low as 30F, we highly advise you to keep the temperature above 40F to avoid any complications.

Even though Operculicarya decaryi can survive low-temperature conditions, it’s usually a good idea to bring it indoors during such extreme drops in temperature.

Remember that Operculicarya decaryi tends to go dormant during the winter, and the ground is generally frozen solid. Hence, it’s crucial to WATER SPARINGLY during the winter season.  

DID YOU KNOW? 

If you loved the Operculicarya decaryi,  there are several other species of Operculicarya, which might be worth seeking out for your collection. A good example is the O. pachypus.

FERTILIZER

Fertilize your Operculicarya decaryi once or twice a month when the plant has reached its active growth stage.

Do not fertilize during the cold/wintery season; instead, reserve fertilizers for spring and fall when temperatures are 60F or higher.

Operculicarya decaryi will appreciate a balance, low-level fertilizer such as a 15-15-15 ratio(or even lower in some cases).

Don’t forget to check out our Succulent City Facebook Page to share tips, tricks, and inspiration from fellow succulent lovers from across the globe!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Posted in Guides & Care Tips