How To Grow And Care For Stapelia (Carrion Flower)

If you don’t know anything about Stapelia plants, you might add one to your basket, care for it as a houseplant, and then be horrified when it flowers. 

While the starfish-like flower is stunning, it absolutely stinks. No, really. It is designed to smell like rotting flesh, to attract flies, which pollinate the plant.

While some people are immediately put off by this characteristic, these are interesting plants that are worth growing at least once, as long as you choose the right cultivar.

It helps that they are very easy to grow, and are relatively undemanding. Not sure if the Stapelia cactus is for you? Here’s everything you need to know.

At A Glance: Everything You Should Know About Stapelia Plants

Part of the dogbane plant family, Apocynaceae, carrion flowers come from the Stapelia genus. All feature succulent leaves and unique flowers, with over 50 species to choose from.

These plants stay low to the ground and produce some of the most eye-catching flowers you will find in nature. They hail mainly from South Africa, with some species coming from other parts of Africa, too. 

The weird texture and colors of the flowers, as well as being covered in hairs are designed to attract pollinators such as blow flies and other specialist insects.

These plants thrive in dry and harsh environments, and the stems grow in a neat, upright habit. 

They like a lot of sunlight, and their appearance can mean they get confused with Euphorbia species, but they are more closely related to Hoya plants, which also come from the dogbane plant family. 

If you put them under direct sunlight for long periods, the stems will develop a hint of red. In fall, these plants really come into their own, producing a single, starry flower per plant, ranging from 2 to 30cm in diameter, depending on the species.

Some flowers can appear a light yellow with red patterns, while others are almost completely red or maroon.

The most distinctive feature of the flowers of Stapelia plants is the smell. You may also know this plant as the carrion cactus, or carrion flower, and it’s not a random name!

Most of the flowers give off a strong smell similar to that of rotting meat, helping to attract flies and other insects for pollination. 

Luckily for those of us with sensitive senses of smell, these flowers are short-lived, and last about a week.

Do All Starfish Cactus Plants Smell Rotten?

Don’t let the idea of the smell put you off, as not all Stapelia plants produce smelly flowers. 

Noticeably smaller flowers have a weaker smell, but if you are really put off by the idea and want to grow a starfish plant, you might try to find a reputable source that sells Stapelia flavopurpurea, as this plant smells like beeswax.

How To Grow Stapelia Plants

Stapelia plants do not require complicated care, but there are some things you can do to really get the best out of your carrion cacti. 

One thing to note is that some species will vary in their care slightly, so make sure you look up the specifics for the species, as the optimal growing conditions can differ.

Sunlight And Position

Unlike most succulent plants, Stapelia like indirect light. These plants won’t do well in a baking-hot position of full sunlight, and prefer somewhere bright but out of the way of direct sunlight.

These plants can tolerate around 4 hours of direct sunlight if need be, but preferably put them in morning sunlight which is less fierce.

Surrounding Temperature And Humidity Needs

These unusual plants like a warm environment that doesn’t have a lot of humidity, so this makes them perfect as houseplants (for another plant with great novelty, you might try growing the lucky bean plant).

The optimal temperature is between 77°F and 95°F (or 25°C and 35°C). 

In winter, they do require cooler conditions, preferably between 50°F and 56°F (10°C and 13°C), so it’s worth keeping them in a cool conservatory or another room that doesn’t get a lot of heat.

Watering Requirements

Most succulents like a good watering and then a prolonged dry spell, waiting until the soil has completely dried out before watering again. 

The Stapelia plant is no different. They have also adapted to prolonged dry spells, so don’t worry about underwatering, just make sure you never overwater these plants.

Should You Feed Stapelia Plants?

During spring, which is when Stapelia plants are most active, it’s a good idea to fertilize your plants once a month, with a fertilizer formulated for cacti and succulents. 

Make the dosage very weak, at least half the strength of the recommended dose. Don’t forget that you should only feed your plants when you water them. 

If the soil is too dry, and you apply fertilizer anyway, this will burn the roots, and can cause serious harm to your plants.

The Ideal Soil Type

Stapelia plants need well-draining soil above all else. While a commercial cactus and succulent compost will do in a pinch, it’s worth taking the time to add some pumice or perlite to help keep the soil aerated. 

Stapelia Cultivars You Should Consider Growing At Least Once

Stapelia hirsuta ‘Starfish Flower’

Producing dark red flowers, this plant is very eye-catching, and it also helps there are a few hybrids to choose from.

Stapelia grandiflora ‘Giant Toad Plant’

Producing deep red flowers that are typically smaller than the average Stapelia, this plant comes from South Africa, and the stems can either stand upright or climb.

Stapelia gigantea ‘Zulu Giant’

Perhaps the most famous of all the carrion flowers is ‘Zulu Giant’. As you might guess, this particular species produces huge flowers that can reach 25cm wide. 

Final Thoughts

Stapelia plants look fantastic, but it’s worth being a bit picky about the variety – especially if you have a sensitive nose and don’t fancy the strong odor the flowers can emit.

You could also cut the flowers off before they form, but considering the flowers are so unusual, it would be a great shame to do so. 

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