Plants in general aren’t usually high in the gross factor. But a group of succulents that is sure to please those who love the flagrant (or should I say fragrant) disregard of societal politeness is the stapeliads.
The term stapeliad refers to the highly succulent, mostly leafless, and usually thornless plants belonging to the family Apocynaceae. They are found almost exclusively in the Old World and are widely distributed over the drier parts from the southern tip of Africa north to the southern shores of Europe, east to Arabia, India, and Myanmar. More than half are found in southern Africa with all but a handful endemic to the region. The stapeliads have succulent angled stems with clear sap. Although the flowers vary widely in their shapes and sizes, they are specialized exclusively for fly pollination. Flowering times can vary but the majority of species begin flowering in the fall with flowers remaining open for 2 – 4 days. The fruit consists of a pair of slender follicles resembling horns which, when ripe, split open, releasing seed which has a cluster of hairs attached resembling milkweed seeds. These hairs act like a parachute, enabling the seed to disperse long distances on the wind.
So, where is this gross factor referenced in the beginning? In order to attract the flies that pollinate the plants, the flower must imitate the medium upon which flies feed and breed. This is achieved by odor, color, and texture. The most notable odor is of rotting flesh, or carrion, hence the common name, carrion flower, for some species. Some other smells associated with this group include excrement, urine, sweat, and over-ripe fruit. There are also those that have pleasantly sweet odors, one with a mushroom-like odor and some with no discernible smell at all. Many of the evil-smelling plants have flowers, which also resemble in color and texture the rotting meat they are emulating. Flowers are often a dark maroon with lighter cream-colored striations said to mimic the marbling of fat in meat. Some flowers are also covered with hairs, the combined effect resembling the carcass and fur of a dead animal. Flies landing are stimulating into laying their eggs on the flowers, the eggs hatch into maggots but die because there is no actual food available. Flower buds of the larger species resemble the pods in the The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, just on a smaller scale. The flowers of Stapelia gigantea are among the largest of all known flowers.
Generally, stapeliads do well under cultivation. As with any group of plants, there those that are super easy to grow and those that are not. However, many of the them spread by rhizomatous growth or crawl along the ground, necessitating constant repotting if grown in containers. The plants grow actively during spring and summer. They do well in the ground in the Phoenix area with filtered sun. If grown in a container, choose one that is somewhat shallow, use well-drained soil and be sure to let the soil dry out between watering. Stapeliads want to be neither to dry nor too wet for long periods of time, nor do they like to be cold and wet. A prolonged period of cold, wet weather in the winter can cause the plants to rot.
A couple of easy ones with which to start are Stapelia gigantea and Orbea variegata. Try one today! And don’t worry—you won’t have flies crawling up your walls.