Stapelias: Extra sixth petal

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.

Stapelias: Leendertziae close

Leendertziae close

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.

Stapelias: Grandiflora in ground

Grandiflora in ground

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!

Stapelias: Leendertziae plant and flower

Leendertziae plant and flower

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.

Stapelias: Several Grant hybrids

Several Grant hybrids

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.

Stapelias: Extra sixth petal

Extra sixth petal

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.

  • Wade

    Really enjoyed the article. I am a huge fan of Asclepiads, but just recently started growing them. Is there any specific advice you can offer to be successful with these? I have a few Stapelia, Huernia, and one Orbea. I’ve spent a lot of time setting up to care for these and would hate to lose them. Unfortunately I live in WV so year round outside growing is out of the question. I’ve already lost one (that was given to me and therefore free thankfully) to rot. To plant was dry but rotted anyway. My others still seem ok as of right now. I’d really appreciate any advice you could give me.

    May 7, 2018
  • Kevin

    Are the seed pods/fruit from these plants edible?

    December 18, 2018
  • Suem

    I have been looking for information like this on growing them. I’m in aged care so have limited room and they have to be outside. They only get either morning or afternoon sun. Because off the shape of my small courtyard which the facility let me use they can’t all get full all day.
    I actually had flowers on two Gigantea and two orbeas but I have a lot of plants which are at least 2 or 3 years old which haven’t flowered.

    March 31, 2020
  • Annette Brennan

    Hi! I was actually searching the web to see if there were any traditional, therapeutic uses for this flower. Doesn’t appear to be and I hadn’t stuck my nose close enough to the flower to realise it was stinky. Nice article though. Thanks!

    April 10, 2020
  • Rose Culhane

    Great Grant, I am new to satepelias so I’ve started with a stapelia Hirsuta. I am reading conflicting info regarding full sun and partial sun. I am in New Jersey it’s not as humid as the southern states but still pretty hot in Summer, what would you recommend? Also how would you estimate age if it’s a cutting?

    June 18, 2020
  • Judy Hughes

    Is it necessary to apply “plant food”? If so, what kind and how much!
    Thank You

    March 18, 2021
  • Juliette

    Just read an article about these flowers looking like a Demogorgon. And they do! Weird and wonderful.

    October 16, 2022
  • Lyn

    Your info is fantastic, I lost mine ages ago, they had mealy bug, and I just ended getting rid of them.
    I had forgotten about them until a cousin found some in an old garden and sent me a pic.
    Want to grow them again for sure.

    April 7, 2023

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