How much do you know about Stapelias?
Known as the ‘starfish flower’, there is much more to Stapelias than meets the eye – namely, that which meets the nose!
Grant Meyer, tends to his fantastic garden in the warm climes of Arizona. He boasts an enviable collection of succulents, and is often spotted decorating his pots with ornamental skulls. Here, he talks about the generally underrated Stapelia succulent plant.
Stapelias: What’s so great about them?
“If you like unusual, interesting plants with attractive, otherworldly flowers, give Stapelias a try. They’re certain to be conversation starters with both gardeners and non-gardeners. Happy gardening!
All you need to know about Stapelias
1. The flowers are furry!
Yes, you read that correctly – Stapelia flowers are furry. Not just “oh, there are some hairs there”, but truly, deeply, furry. Like a cat. And they are shaped like five-pointed stars, giving them one of their common names: starfish flower.
2. The flowers are large
No need to break out the magnifying glass when your Stapelia blooms. S. hirsuta, S. grandiflora and others produce hand-sized flowers. The well-named S. gigantea produces yet larger blooms that make even non-gardeners take a second look.
3. The flowers appear over a long season
When happy, most Stapelia plants will produce a nice flush of flowers in late spring, then random flowers any time in summer, then an even larger display in autumn. Take that, peonies!
4. The plants are extremely low maintenance
Extremely. They are desert succulents and crave as much sunshine as you can give them, and want water only when bone dry, especially in winter.
Their only cultural enemies are chilly, wet soil, insufficient light, and being grown in pots that are too large (causing the first issue, wet soil).
In summer they’ll want water perhaps every two weeks. In spring/autumn perhaps once a month. When it comes to winter, you can skip watering altogether.
When in doubt, don’t water. If you want plants you needn’t fuss over, then Stapelias are your answer.
5. Stapelias are quick and easy from seed
Just barely bury the flat papery seeds in your favourite fast-draining cactus/succulent potting mix, water well, and keep in bright, indirect light in a sealed plastic bag/miniature terrarium.
Vent the bag once a week by blowing into it for air-exchange and make sure the soil is barely moist. When seedlings are a couple of centimetres tall gradually vent the bag over a period of weeks to let them adjust to room air.
Viable seeds sprout very quickly, usually within a week, and certainly within two. Precocious seedlings will flower at three years of age, although their siblings might take a year or two longer.
6. They’re easy to propagate from stem cuttings
Just cut or snap off a mature stem, let it air-dry in bright light for several days to allow the cut end to callous over to prevent too much water from entering the stem when planted.
Plant the cutting in your favourite fast-draining mix. I often angle the cutting so the cut end stays above the soil line to prevent rot, and just partially bury what was the side of the cutting, at an angle.
Give them partial sun and water only when very dry and they’ll root quickly. Again, wet soil is their enemy (especially chilly wet soil), so stem propagation is best done in summer.
7. Let’s talk about Stapelia’s dirty little secret: the flowers usually have a foul odour.
They come from regions of Africa without native pollinating honeybees. So the plants produce flowers with the fur, the colours, and the scent of carrion to attract pollinating ants and flies.
I think this is a great reason to grow them – it’s fun and funny and you’ll have no end of entertainment asking people to smell the flowers and then watch their faces.
Fear not, though, the scent is not overpowering—one really needs to get close and inhale deeply to smell them. From several feet away, one hardly notices the aroma at all.
Most cold-climate growers are blessed because the flowers usually appear during months when people have their plants outside to maximise sun exposure (be certain to move plants from indoors to outdoors very gradually over a week or three to prevent sunburn).
8. There are many, many different sizes and colours to choose from
There are many dozens of Stapelia species, each with flowers of a different size, colour, and hirsuteness (hairiness). S. gigantea, S. grandiflora and S. hirsuta are three of the very easiest species to grow.
Perhaps start with these and expand with other types after your initial success. There are many Stapelia hybrids too – I hand-pollinate them in my little garden (a tedious, hidden lock-and-key mechanism). But if you grow several species together, you’ll often get random fly-pollinated hybrid seed too.
Just let the seed pods ripen and split to release the furry, tufted seeds (revealing Stapelia’s close relationship to milkweeds (Asclepias)). The seeds stay viable for several months to a year or more if kept cool and dry.”
Follow Grant’s Arizona garden journey on his Instagram account, @grant_in_arizona.