Centuries ago, over 1 million hectares of South Africa was covered by lush, green thickets of succulents known as Spekboom (Portulacaria afra). Also referred to as elephant bush or the dwarf jade plant, these plants have suffered a dramatic decline, primarily due to overgrazing. Recently, the #SpekboomChallenge has begun to draw attention on social media, encouraging South Africans to restore the succulents in order to combat climate change.
Spekboom is a mighty plant that can survive up to 200 years and grow as high as 5 meters while boasting carbon-sequestering powers that outperform the Amazon Rainforest. It can sequester 4-10 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare, a rate that is ten times more cost-effective than planted trees in temperate and tropical rainforests. In addition to its climate change fighting abilities, spekboom is well known for being hardy and drought-resistant. Rina Grant-Briggs explains in a BBC article that spekboom can change the type of photosynthesis it does between day and night in order to conserve water. During the day, the plant uses C3 photosynthesis to absorb CO2 through openings in their leaves called stomata and then uses it to create sugar for energy. However, the stomata will close during droughts in order to conserve water. In order to make up for the CO2 that couldn’t be absorbed during the day, spekboom begins a different type of photosynthesis at night called CAM photosynthesis. During this process, the plant’s schedule is reversed—the stomata close during the day and open at night to collect CO2 when there is a lower chance of evaporation. Besides requiring less water to grow, spekboom thickets improve the quality of degraded soil so that the land retains more water. They can also provide shade for a number of native plants and animals.
The best part? Planting spekboom is simple! It can be grown from just a cutting (a piece of the leaf or stem) planted into sandy soil. While native to South Africa, they make great houseplants and can be grown indoors by a sunny window.
Remember to always practice responsible planting—be careful not to plant invasive species or in areas with fragile ecosystems that could be outcompeted by the introduction of new species. Research recommends that spekboom should not be planted in natural velds without approval from rehabilitation specialists.
Will you participate in the #SpekboomChallenge?
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