Starfish Flower- I Planted Roots in Mexico

2012 August 2012 I Planted Roots in Mexico Nature Tommy Clarkson

By Tommy Clarkson from the August 2012 Edition

Giant Starfish Flower, Stapelia gigantean
Family: Asclepiadaceae

(Also known as a Carrion Flower, Carrion Plant, Carrion Lily, Toad Cactus, Zulu Giant or Hairy Giant Starfish Flower)

In the Asclepiadaceae – Milkweed or Madagascer Jasmine family there are around 100 species of the succulent perennial Stapelia. They originated in the semi-arid tropical and subtropical regions of Africa and India. This particular one, the Stapelia gigantean, comes from northwestern South Africa. A rather curious and intriguing succulent, it has a major flowering (and stinky smelling) attitude!

Resembling a cactus, but without thorn, its blooms explode forth from leafless, knobby, fleshy and ascending, four-ridged stems. These scalloped ridges sport upward pointing soft “teeth.” While, throughout the species whole, the stem colors vary from bright green through olive green to a brownish green, the color of the Giant Starfish – most often around 25.5 cm (10”) in length – is pale green.

One morning recently I noted that, in one stage or another, our little plant had seven , light yellow with thin dark purple lines, blooms. In others of this species, these beautiful, attention getting, perfect star shaped flowers can be as big as 45.7 cm (18”) across. But sweet of aroma they definitely are not!

Actually, they have a rather putrid, nauseating, smell – hence the alternate name of Carrion Flower. (Some folks have observed that its odor is similar to that of rotting flesh. Yuk!)

Seen from above, its leafless, knobby, fleshy and ascending, four-ridged stems with scalloped ridges sporting upward pointing soft “teeth” are well seen – along with a blossom soon to open.

However, these stunningly attractive blooms are, many times, flesh-colored, often rimmed in crimson and are covered with soft, white, silky hairs. To the compound eyes of carrion insects these hairs resemble a layer of mold growing on rotting matter which, in bug speak, says “U’mmmm, yum!”

This “scent of death” attracts carrion beetles, blowflies, flesh flies and midges to the central orifice where the male and female floral sex organs are located.

The extremely attractive and exotic looking, five petaled flower is also found in the colors of red, brown and purple. With beauty within beauty, often there is a small star inside the star shaped bloom. In maturity these plants should grow to about a foot tall. So large and heavy are these flowers that they generally come to rest on the ground.

As plastic tends to keep moisture in longer these are best grown in clay pots. Good drainage is important – be careful to not overwater. They are prone to root rot, so use a good, sterile potting soil, leaning toward sandy. Grown indoors or out, it likes both humid or dry air.

What with blooms that are larger and more pendulous than its stems, they are excellent plants when used in a semi-cascading venue.

Purportedly most happy in morning sun to afternoon shade – mine is in full sun all of the time. They are easy to propagate. So when you wish more of these palnts, simply cut or snap off a stem, let it air-dry in shade for a day or so and then plant it right side up.

Planted with smaller succulents they are in the words of the botanical great, Robert Lee Riffle, “wonderfully outlandish.” I  though no where the intellect as he wholly agree!

Download the full edition or view it online