Stapelia (2017)

PhotoBy Bob Williams (May 2017)

Everyone has faced this problem. You have houseguests who just won’t leave, but you’re too good a host. You may have family visiting from out of town, and they have decided to stay a few extra weeks because you have very comfortable beds.

You have tried everything: turning the hot water heater off, turning the furnace off if it’s winter or the air conditioner if it’s summer. Nothing is working. Fear not. There is a solution. Keep a supply of flowering stapelias on hand.

Use them as a centerpiece on the dining room table. Place a few in the guest bedroom. Problem solved! You have brought out nature’s secret weapon – the carrion plant.

Stapelia is a genus found in the Apocynaceae family. At one time, Stapelia was included in the genus Obrea. In 1975, Stapelia was separated from Obrea and has remained so ever since.

The name Stapelia was given by Carl Linnaeus, who first described it in 1737. The name honors Johannes van Stapel, a 17th-century physician and botanist.

There are between 50 and 80 species of Stapelia found in the wild, depending on the source. Stapelias are native to the arid regions of tropical and southern Africa, and are found in Botswana, Zimbabwe and especially in Namibia and South Africa, where about 45 species are found. Outside this region, they are also found in southern Angola, northern Zambia, southern Malawi and central Mozambique.

They grow in clumps that can reach 3 feet in diameter. In the wild, they are found growing under shrubs or in well-shaded areas. While they can withstand direct sunlight, the light causes the stems to have a reddish hue. In any given area in the wild, they are not very abundant and have been known to disappear in areas that have had populations for years.

Stapelia stems are soft and fleshy. They are four-sided or quadrangular. Depending on the species, they can grow to 6 inches tall and 2 inches thick. The small ones may be 1/4 inch wide and 1 inch tall. The branches form from the bases of the plants. This is how they form such wide clumps.

Stapelias are not grown for the beauty of the plants. They are grown for their flowers. Stapelias have unusual five-lobed flowers that can be red, maroon, purple or yellow, often with interesting banded patterns. The flower surfaces can be brightly polished or matted with hairs.

Flowering occurs in the late summer or early fall. The flowers do not last very long, a few days at most. Most clumps send out multiple flower stalks, so a plant can be in bloom for a week or more.

PhotoThe granddaddy of all stapelias is S. gigantia. The petals of its flowers are a muted yellow and can reach 12 inches across. S. hirsute is another species, with a flower reaching 7 inches across. At the other end of the spectrum is S. scitula. This plant only grows to 2 inches tall. The stems are only 1/4 inches wide, and its small, deep purple flowers may reach only 1 inch across.

Besides the flowers, there is the smell. These plants have the odor of rotting flesh – hence the nickname carrion flower. The odor is meant to attract flies, and if you have ever had one of these in bloom, you know it works. It has been reported that flies are sometimes so deceived by the odor that they lay their eggs on the flowers.

Stapelias are easy to grow, but it can be hard to keep a clump looking good. As the clumps increase in size, the innermost branches tend to die off, leaving a “hole” in the middle. They need a very well-draining soil mix and do better in clay pots instead of glazed ones. If you overwater, rot is swift to come, and you end up with a gooey mess.

Stapelias can take full sun, but do better in bright, indirect light. They can handle high temperatures, but not cold. In winter, they should be in a room that stays above 50 degrees. Watering should be slowed down during the winter, but not eliminated. A small amount every three weeks works. These plants are not winter-hardy in the St. Louis area. In zone 9-10, they are commonly used as landscape plants in rock gardens, as the clumps will cascade over a rock ledge.

If your plant flowers, and germination occurs – and you can stand the smell – you can propagate the plants from seeds. The only drawback is that the seeds take almost a year to ripen. Once ripe, germination is fast.

An easier way to propagate is by taking cuttings. Cut a branch with a sharp knife and let the cutting heal for about a week. Then place the cutting in your starting mix. Water carefully to prevent rot.

Sometimes a branch in a clump starts sending out air roots. When this occurs, cut the branch from the base of the plant. Let the cutting heal and plant the branch so the air roots are below soil level.

Wooly aphids and mealy bugs find these plants a favorite source of nourishment. Frequent inspections should be done.

There are many varieties of Stapelia available on the Internet from many different sources. As you shop, consider the plants’ many attributes: fly attractor, guest repellent and the biggest flowers you may ever own.