starfish cactus

How to Grow and Care for Stapelia (Carrion Flower)

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With their foul, rotting meat smell, Stapelia plants have the reputation of being one of the most distasteful of flowering plants. But do not let this smelly fact keep you from adding them to your plant collection. 

They make up for their foul odor with their stunning and gorgeous blooms. And to add to their beauty, these peculiar succulents are quite easy to care for. 

Learn how to make the most out of your Stapelia plant with these caring tips.

What is a Stapelia?

Stapelia is a genus of succulent plants from the dogbane family, Apocynaceae. It is a large genus, with over 50 species. These plants are commonly known as Starfish Flowers or Carrion plants. 

They have origins in Eastern and Southern Africa, where they thrive in dry and arid environments. In the wild, they can be seen growing in nooks and corners, underneath bushes, and sometimes hanging on a rocky precipice (1).  

carrion cactus

Like most succulent Carrion plants are low-growing, green, and fleshy. They grow upright from the soil in dense clumps. Their four-angled stems are leafless with blunt ‘teeth’ running along its length.

Under the strong sunlight, the erect stems will develop a reddish color. These characteristics of Stapelia often lead them to be mistaken for Euphorbia or other cactuses, but they are in fact more related to Hoya plants.

These plants bloom in fall. Compared to their stems, the solitary flowers are very showy with sizes ranging from 1-inch to 12-inches in diameter (2). The flowers themselves are hairy, and star shaped. They vary in color from pale yellow with intricate red patterns to almost completely crimson.c

The curious thing about these flowers is their smell. Carrion plants are also called carrion flowers because the open flowers emit a malodorous aroma comparable to the smell of rotting meat. This smell attracts flies which helps in pollination (3). Each bloom lasts for a week at which time they will start to become floppy and then fall off the plant.

Do all Stapelia Smell Bad?

The answer is no. While most Stapelia plants are characterized as having a foul odor, the smell can still vary from species to species. Larger species can emit a more noticeable rotting odor while smaller species only have the subtle smell. Some species can even be fragrant (4).

stapelia flower

Popular Types of Stapelia

The genus harbors over 50 species and every single one of them is beautiful but some of them stand out more than the other. Here are some of the popular starfish succulent species you may want to get your hands on.

S. hirsuta

This species has a very hairy, dark red flower that blooms to a width of 2-6 inches. It is extremely variable with several subspecies and hybrids.

S. grandiflora 

This species features a dark red to deep purple flower with purplish hairs. The starfish cactus flower has a span of 1-5 inches in diameter.

S. gigantea 

Also known as the Zulu plant, this species has one of the largest blooms with flowers reaching a span of up to 9 inches in diameter. The flowers themselves are stunning with yellow and red coloration and hairy margins.

S. scitula

In contrast to S. gigantea, this species has one of the smallest blooms with its dark red flowers only reaching up to 3 inches in diameter.

S. leendertziae ­

Also known as Black bells, this species features a very distinctive campanulate flower with a deep maroon color.

S. flavopurpurea 

The outlier from the group, this species is the most unusual with its small green flowers that smells of beeswax instead of the usual rotting meat.

starfish cactus

How to Care for Starfish Cactus

While Stapelia plants are relatively easy to grow, their growth requirements can still vary from one species to another. Some species can require more care than others and can prove to be challenging but the general care is still the same. 

Read these Stapelia care tips to learn how to keep these unusual plants thriving beautifully.

How Much Light does Stapelia plants need?

Despite Stapelia being accustomed to the desert environment, it is best to grow these plants in a shaded area where it can receive lots of bright, indirect sunlight. Prolonged exposure to direct sunlight can damage your plant, but it can also induce a beautiful pinkish hue on the stems.

You can achieve this by allowing your plants to soak up sunlight for 4 hours. The morning light is preferred for succulents as the light at these hours is gentler compared to the afternoon sun (5).

How often should you water Stapelia?

The general rule for watering succulents is to soak the soil and then hold off watering until the soil is completely dry. Water your plants sparingly, these plants are well adapted to drought conditions so do not worry about underwatering your plants.

These plants are very susceptible to fungus and rot so take extra care not to overwater them (3).

What is the optimum temperature and humidity for Stapelia?

Stapelia plants prefer a warm environment with low to moderate humidity. They can do well in room temperature but grow best at around 77-95oF (25-35oC). In winter, keep your plants at 50-56oF (10-13oC) (5).

What is the best potting/growing media for Stapelia?

These plants are best grown in well-drained soil with a bit of organic matter. The commercial cactus and succulent potting mix can work but you can create your own with equal parts potting mix and pumice or perlite (5).

Does Stapelia need fertilizer?

During active growth (spring), you will need to feed your starfish cactus plants once a month with cactus fertilizer that has been diluted twice.

Don’t forget to check our list of cactus plants to grow.

References

References

(1) Cohen A., Hammel T., Rindlisbacher J. ‘Mary Elizabeth Barber: Growing Wils: The Correspondence of a Pioneering Woman Naturalist from the Cape.‘ Basler Afrika Bibliographien. 2020. P. 209.

(2) Anon. ‘A Collection of Articles on Indoor Cacti – A Guide to Growing and Care’. Read Books Ltd., 2016.

(3) Baldwin D.L. ‘Succulent Container Gardens: Design Eye-Catching Displays With 350 Easy-Care Plants’. 2010. Timber Press. P. 129.

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