Editor's Note:This article was originally published on April 12, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
In the many years I have been growing succulents, I have learned that some are very difficult to keep alive, due in part to my lack of a shade structure or greenhouse, lack of knowledge and overall laziness. So saying a plant is difficult may not mean much to someone with a lot of experience and who has the facilities, knowledge and is willing to put the effort into keeping something alive and happy. However, I have also learned in my years of growing and killing plants that some succulents are exceptionally easy. If they are easy for me, then they are undoubtedly easy for most anyone else. And the group of plants I refer to as the jade plants are just one such example of easy succulent.
Crassula ovata, referred to as Jade Plant, Jade Tree, and Money Tree, is a very common plant, available at most garden outlet centers and local nurseries, at least here in California. I know they are fairly easy to grow indoors so probably these are readily available all over the U.S. They are inexpensive, fast-growing and amazingly resilient plants. All the Jade Trees are South African species but they have been growing for so long in the warmer areas of the U.S. that I sometimes forget they are not native species.
Crassula ovata grown as a hedge in public landscaping (photo by Kell)
The true jade tree (Crassula ovata) is a fleshy, large plant for a Crassula species with succulent ovoid leaves (hence the name ‘ovata') and thick, water-filled stems and branches. The trunks or stems can get up to 8 to 10 inches in diameter or more, but only in older plants do they become woody. Younger stems and branches are so fleshy and soft they can be cut easily with a butter knife. This makes for a relatively brittle shrub and one of the reasons this plant rarely grows much taller than 6 or 8 feet tall, as its heavy, water-logged leaves and branches weigh so much they break themselves off eventually, falling to the ground and readily rooting there. This is the way large shrubs or thickets of Crassula ovata develop. This ability to root easily makes this one of the easiest species to grow from cuttings.
Leaves and stem of Crassula ovata
Though pretty rot-resistant in most warm outdoor situations, these plants can rot if overwatered and grown in poorly draining soils or allowed to remain too cool or cold for too long. It is one of the more adaptable succulents to clayey soils, however; my plants have never had a problem rotting, despite my soils being exceptionally poorly draining. If a stem does rot, it is best to just cut it down to healthy tissue, apply a fungicide and let it dry out for weeks. Otherwise the rot tends to progress and an entire plant can eventually collapse into a mound of mush. Most plants in southern California tolerate amazing amounts of rain water, even if planted in somewhat clayey soils, and even seem to look happiest during the rainy winter season.
The leaves of Crassula ovata are about one inch or more in diameter, thick and a deep green (some say a jade green, but I have not seen jade that color too often) though they can be tinged with red in times of stress (high heat, cold, hot sun, drought). Wrinkling of leaves occurs during periods of extended dehydration (these plants like summer water) OR if overwatered. This can make interpretation of wrinkled leaves difficult unless you know something about the soil and watering scheme a plants has been exposed to. Some cultivars of this plant have smaller, nearly perfectly circular leaves, some have more oval small ones (e.g., 'Obliqua'), some have white streaks (e.g., 'Tricolor' and 'Variegata') and some are pale or deep yellow and white variegated (e.g., 'Sunset').
Collapsed, wrinkled leaves from drought (Southern California late summer) in first photo; second photo shows dried plant on left and plant with normal leaves on right getting some sprinkler water. The wrinkled, dried leaves will quickly 're-inflate' in winter when it rains again.
Crassula ovata 'Compactum' showing nice stress color (photo by Happenstance); 2 shots of variegated Crassula ovata (middle and right)
Crassula ovata 'Hummel's Sunset'
yellow Crassula ovata outdoors in southern California (in winter showing blooms)
As well as having color and size variations, some cultivars have leaf shape variations. The most notable of these are Crassula ovata 'Hobbit' and Crassula ovata 'Gollum'. The former was the original cultivar but it is not all that commonly seen in cultivation anymore as Crassula ovata ‘Gollum' seems to have become the more popular plant, and is almost as commonly sold now as the normal form of Crassula ovata here in California. These two are very similar in appearance with both having monstrose leaf forms. Crassula ‘Hobbit' has leaves that curl and are elongated, paddle-shaped and look a bit like a rodent's ears. Crassula ‘Gollum' has more tubular leaves that end in a little cup shape and look like the ears of Shrek, the cartoon character... though many of the leaves on a typical Crassula ‘Gollum' will have some ‘Hobbit'-like leaves as well. These cultivars are no less easy to grow or propagate from cuttings though eventual overall size seems a bit smaller than the normal Crassula ovata plants.
Crassula ovata 'Hobbit' (photo by Squinj) (left); two photos of my own Crassula ovata 'Hobbit' foliage
comparison of Crassula ovata 'Hobbit' (left) and 'Gollum' (right)
Crassula ovata 'Gollum' in my garden showing stress coloration; two photos of foliage details (photo on right by IslandJim)
Crassula ovata 'Gollum' plants in my landscape
The flowers of this plant occur in the winter in California, but are supposed to occur in summers in South Africa. I am not sure why that would be, but that is what I have read. The flowers are a pale pink and if looked at closely are quite pleasantly colored. However it was only recently that I noticed this color while writing this article. Up until then I thought they were just white as that's how they look unless you inspect them closely. The flowers of Crassula ovata are not terribly ornamental and quickly brown, making the plants look weedy.
Crassula ovata 'Greybark' flowers pure white; Crassula ovata (normal form) flowers have pale pink coloration- all these are winter flowers
large hedge of plant in winter in Los Angeles (second photo shows only part of plant getting sunlight is flowering); Flowering plant in desert landscape in winter (can hardly see foliage)
Cold hardiness is not terribly impressive with this species, though it is plenty hardy enough to survive in most warm, arid southwest climates. Temps down into the low 20s are hard on this plant, and may cause a lot of damage and subsequent rotting.
These plants prefer a lot of bright light and seem to do well in very hot arid full sun situations. They also do pretty well in rather low light situations, however, and can grow quite well in full shade situations as long as they aren't grown in soggy soils. However they tend to get leggy and weak in this situation and the overall look of the plant will be less impressive, weak and with a tendency for sagging and broken branches.
Though this plant seems to be about 95% water and it definitely is a drought-tolerant species, it does not look good without summer water and will start to look dried out and less ornamental if grown this way. The leaves become flat and dull, sometimes wrinkling and even turning brownish-red. If grown in a small, clay pot with restricted root space, some plants will even die without water over summer.
Jade trees for the most part are fairly resistant to bugs. Crassulas are known to attract mealy bugs, aphids snails. However these seem to very resistant to the first two and the plants are large enough generally that snail damage is not always evident. Fungal problems are the most common diseases encountered and nearly always due to inappropriate watering schemes or too little light.
As mentioned earier, these are exceptionally easy plants to grow from cuttings and fallen pieces will root themselves in the yard often. To make a cutting, just cut or snap off a smaller branch and stick into very well draining soil and do not water for a few weeks. Even leaves will root easily if placed on top of semi-moist soil out of direct sun.
Crassula ovata 'Gollum' cutting (or 'snapping' since I just snapped it off main trunk); leaf on moist soil showing new leaves forming where leaf has rooted (photo by Dave)
This is commonly grown as indoor plant and it excels as one. It can survive for decades in the same pot as long as not overwatered too often. However it is recommended to change the soil every 2 to 4 years. Soil should be very well draining and can be well over 50% inorganic material (like grit, sand and/or pumice) and the rest potting soil. Bright light is still essential at least part of the year, but it will do well without any direct sunlight indoors. Indoor plants need little or no fertilizer for long periods of time (same is true for outdoor plants).
Crassula ovata indoors (photo by cacti-lover)
Jade plants are popular as bonsai species as they grow naturally into one, particularly if grown in a small, shallow pot. I personally kill most bonsai plants as I usually underwater them, but this is one I can keep alive for years (missing a watering here and there does not phase this species). It is a particularly easy plant to trim and keep looking like a miniature tree. However, forcing its branches to grow in different directions can be frustrating as they are brittle and snap off easily, so patience is a must.
wonderfully grown 'tree' in a pot (photo by wnstarr)
Crassula arborescens or the Silver Jade Tree (also called Chinese Jade, Money Plant, or Silver Dollar Plant), is a similar-sized plant and nearly as easy to grow in most respects as Crassula ovata, though I find it slower and less tolerant of low light situations. This is a very ornamental species with large, nearly perfectly circular 2-inch, thick, flat to slightly cup-shaped, pale blue to silvery-blue-green leaves with visible stomata (tiny holes) and sometimes reddish-pink edges. There is another form with wavy leaves called Crassula arborescens 'Undulatifolia' which is still not very common in cultivation. The leaves of this form are notably thinner and the stomata are not evident readily. The stems and trunk are similar to those of Crassula ovata, though I don't see these plants ever get as large and massive as Crassula ovata, at least here in California. I read that these can grow up to 9 feet tall, but I have never seen one anywhere near that tall. Most grow to shrubs about 3 to 4 feet high, and then their heavy branches break off and root where they fall and new plants grow from these. Flowers tend to grow in warmer weather than do the Crassula ovata flowers, blooming in late spring or early summer.
Crassula arborescens shrub leaf color showing pink in drought and cold flowering in summer, southern California
Crassula arborescens stems Crassula arborescens above and Crassula ovata below for comparison
Plant in my yard and a leaf I removed from it to show size and thickness
Crassula arborescens 'Undulatifolia' for sale in a nursery (first two photos); third photo is of a bluer shrub in a landscape situation in southern California
Portulacaria afra is an unrelated species that is sometimes referred to as the Miniature Jade Tree or Small Leaf Jade (also called Elephant Food or Elephant Plant). I include it here as it is somewhat similar in appearance and I find it is just about as easy to grow and care is nearly identical to that of the Crassulas above. This plant has bright green succulent leaves that are ovoid about 1/2-inch in diameter. There is a popular variegated form that has pale yellowish leaves with some pale green streaking down the middle. Stems are fleshy and start out an ornamental red-brown color, though fading to grey with age.
Portulacaria afra (photo by Xenomorf) Portulacaria afra variegated
foliage of both forms (first photo Xenomorf)
Grown in warm climate these plants will eventually form large colonies many feet wide and up to about six feet tall. It does require an arid climate to be happy and it is commonly grown yard plant in Hawaii even in the fairly wet areas. The variegated form has a different growth habit and rarely grows into tall colonies. Rather it grows along the ground as a creeper and only manages one to two feet of height when grown outdoors as a shrub.
Portulacaria afra normal and variegated in landscape. The shrub on the left is about eight feet tall while the variegated one on the right, though impressive in size for this form is only about two feet tall
Both forms of Portalacaria afra are excellent as potted plants. They make easy and ornamental bonsai plants, naturally growing into interesting miniatures trees even with little pruning or care. The variegated from has a tendency to grow down and as a trailing plant, but it can be trained to grow upright as a tree.
examples of bonsaid Portulacaria afra (third photo is of a variegated plant)
Care for this plant is nearly the same as it is for Crassula ovata, including its drought- and cold-tolerance and its ability to tolerate lower light situations. However, if kept in low light conditions for an extended period of time, it tends to rot or lose leaves. I have rotted these in pots but in the ground I have yet to manage to do anything bad to any of them. This plant does not flower nearly as readily as the Crassulas and getting one to flower here in California is a feat (or luck). Flowers are a bright pink and fairly ornamental, at least compared to those of the Crassulas.
Flowering plant in southern California (photo by RWhiz)
Almost all the above plants mentioned are readily available in cultivation, inexpensive and easy to grow. So what are you waiting for?