Operculicarya Elephant Tree Care: How To Grow An Elephant Tree

By: Teo Spengler

The elephant tree (Operculicarya decaryi) gets itscommon name from its gray, gnarled trunk. The thickened trunk bears archingbranches with tiny glossy leaves. Operculicarya elephant trees are natives ofMadagascar and very easy to grow as houseplants. Read on for information aboutgrowing elephant trees as well as tips on elephant tree care.

Elephant Tree Plant Info

The elephant tree plant is a small tree in the Anacardiaceaefamily. It is a succulentrelated to cashews,mangos,and pistachios.The trees are eye catching with their thick twisted trunks, zigzaggingbranches, and tiny forest green leaflets tinged red in cool weather. Thosegrowing elephant trees say that mature plants bear red flowers and round,orange fruit.

Operculicarya elephant trees grow in the wild in southwestMadagascar and are droughtdeciduous. In their native range, the trees grow to 30 feet (9 m.) tall andthe trunks expand to three feet (1 m.) in diameter. However, cultivated treesstay considerably shorter. It’s even possible to grow a bonsaielephant tree.

How to Grow an Elephant Tree

If you are interested in growing elephant trees outdoors, besure your region is a warm one. These trees only thrive in USDA plant hardinesszones 10 or higher.

You’ll want to plant them in a sunny area, either in full orpartial sun. The soil should be well-draining. You can also grow elephant treesin containers. You’ll want to use a well-draining potting soil and place thepot in a window where it gets regular sunlight.

Elephant Tree Care

What is involved in elephant tree care? Irrigation and fertilizerare the two main tasks. You’ll need to learn the ins and outs of wateringelephant trees to help these plants thrive. Trees growing outside in soil onlyrequire occasional watering in the growing season and even less in winter.

For container plants, water more regularly but allow thesoil to dry out completely in between. When you do water, do it slowly andcontinue until water trickles out of the drain holes.

Fertilizer is also part of the tree’s care. Use a low-levelfertilizer like a 15-15-15. Apply it monthly during the growing season.

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Elephant Tree Plant Info – Tietoja Operculicarya Elephant Trees – pelistä

Norsunpuu (Operculicarya decaryi) saa yleisen nimensä harmaasta, rypistetystä rungosta. Paksuuntuneessa rungossa on kaarevat oksat pienillä kiiltävillä lehdillä. Operculicarya-elefanttipuut ovat Madagaskarin alkuperäiskansoja, ja niitä on helppo kasvattaa huonekasveina. Lue lisää elefanttipuiden kasvusta sekä vinkkejä norsupuiden hoidosta.

Elephant Ear Plant Overview

Common Name(s) Elephant ear plant, tarul, dasheen, chembu, champadhumpa
Scientific Name Colocasia / Xanthosoma / Caladium / Alocasia
Family Araceae
Origin Oceania, South America, Southeast Asia
Height Up to 9 feet
Light Full sun to patial shade
Water High
Temperature 65-70 °F
Humidity Medium to High
Soil Rich organic soil 5.5-7.0 pH
Fertilizer Medium
Propagation By seed, division, or runners
Pests Spider mites, thrips

If you’re a bit boggled by all the different names you see associated with the elephant ear plant, don’t be discouraged. There are more than 3,000 species out there!

The following are the related genera in the Araceae family.


Native to tropical and subtropical Asia to Eastern Australia, there are 79 species of this popular potted house plant. They include several from New Guinea, like aequiloba, boa, and monticola, and others from places like Malaysia, the Philippines, Sulawesi, and Borneo.

Vietnam, which boasts a species or two such as vietnamensis, is known for the use of elephant ear stalks as an herb in various soups and stir-fry dishes.

Before you try tossing a few into your next meal, keep in mind they can be poisonous if they’re not cooked.


While the flowering plants in this closely related genus are known as “elephant ear,” you wouldn’t think that their other names include “Angel Wings” and “Heart of Jesus,” unless you usually think of elephants with angel wings sprouting from their backs.

The seven species are indigenous to Central and South America, also naturalized in a few parts of Africa and India.


Dasheen, chembu, eddoe, and tarul are just a few of the names belonging to this genus, with others that are even more a mouthful to say. To keep herbivores from filling their mouths with it, these plants have raphides, or microscopic calcium oxalate needles, which help facilitate the transfer of an irritant that causes severe discomfort.

This is a more complicated way of referring to the “elephant ear plant poison.” However, this hasn’t stopped humans from using the 12 or so different species through fermenting or cooking, sometimes with some sort of acid like lime.


Here is a genus native to the tropical areas of the Americas and prized for their carbohydrate-rich corms, or bulbotubers. It is also a common food staple and an ornamental, though the leaves are different from the Colocasia in that they aren’t peltate. This genus gets its name from its yellow tissues, xanthos being Greek for “yellow.” There are at least 75 species of Xanthosoma, from acutum to yucatanense.

How to Care for an Elephant Tree Plant

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Elephant trees (Bursera fagaroides) stand out with their stout trunks, peeling bark and dark green leaves, which emit a citrusy fragrance when handled. They grow best in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9b to 11, where they are used as ornamental trees or specimen plants in low-water landscapes. Elephant trees require little care or attention once established in a sunny site with porous, fast-draining soil. But they are susceptible to errors in culture related to water, fertilizer and temperature that may permanently damage or kill elephant trees if they are allowed to happen.

Prune back any overhanging shrubs or tree branches that cast shade on the elephant tree. Remove enough overhanging growth to provide at least six hours of direct sun to the elephant tree each day. Watch for leggy growth in the elephant tree because it may indicate that it is not getting enough sun.

Test the soil moisture with your finger twice weekly during the summer months and water only when the soil feels completely dry in the top 4 inches. Water so the soil is damp 4 inches deep. Do not water during cold, wet or foggy weather. Provide just enough water in winter to prevent the trunk from shriveling.

Dissolve 4 tablespoons of fertilizer in 1 gallon of water and apply it monthly from midspring until late summer. Feed elephant trees only if their soil is very poor or sandy. Use low-nitrogen liquid fertilizer with an N-P-K ratio of 5-10-10 or 10-20-20 to prevent leggy, weak growth. Do not fertilize during the winter.

Prune off any unwanted side shoots or crossed branches to create a more open shape to show off the elephant tree's attractive trunk, or prune the main branches back by one-fourth in spring to control the tree's size and promote a fuller shape. Wear gloves when pruning elephant trees because they produce sticky, resinous sap that will stick to skin.

Cover young elephant trees if temperatures are expected to drop below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Use burlap or other lightweight, breathable cloth to cover the tree rather than impermeable material such as plastic. Moisten the top layer of soil beneath the tree because moist soil retains and releases warmth more readily than dry soil.

Watch dropped foliage in summer, cracks in the trunk and a general lack of vigor, all of which are signs of stress. Stop watering if the trunk develops cracks or if the soil feels wet a few days after watering. Yellow leaves or summer leaf drop indicate a nutrient imbalance, so stop fertilizing if those signs appear.

  • Sanitize pruning shears before use by soaking them in a solution of equal parts rubbing alcohol and water, then rinse and dry them thoroughly.
  • Don't worry when elephant trees drop their leaves in winter it is a natural part of their life cycle and helps keep them healthy.
  • Sap from elephant trees is sometimes used as incense for its frankincense-like fragrance.
  • Elephant trees don't usually have problems with pests or diseases.

Samantha McMullen began writing professionally in 2001. Her nearly 20 years of experience in horticulture informs her work, which has appeared in publications such as Mother Earth News.

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