In April of last year, a box of stem cuttings arrived in my mailbox. They were sent to me by a friend in Colorado called Sandra (you may know her from one of her many ventures: Greenwoman Magazine, Greenwoman Publishing, Flora’s Forum, etc.). Sandra’s carrion flower had bloomed that spring, a stinky but delightful occasion. In her excitement, she asked if I would be interested in growing some carrion flowers of my own. Not one to turn down the chance to try my hand at cultivating something unusual, I gladly accepted her offer of a few cuttings sent via Priority Mail. Six cuttings arrived shortly thereafter, and upon reading through some instructions on the internet, I nestled them into their new home and hoped they would put down roots and stay a while.
There are several species of plants that are referred to commonly as carrion flower. The plant parts I received from Sandra are in the genus Stapelia (family: Apocynaceae or dogbane family), also known commonly as African starfish flower. There are around 100 species in the genus Stapelia, and they all originate from tropical and southern Africa, mostly in arid regions.
Stapelias are short-lived, low-growing, perennial succulents. Their stems typically stand erect and are produced along stolons (above ground runners), creating a tight clump of stems that appear cactus-like. Each stem has 4-6 flattened vertical flanks, giving it a cross or star shape when looking down from the top. On the outside edges of the flanks are a series of rudimentary leaves protruding from tubercles (wart-like growths), giving the stems a spiny appearance. The stems are usually green but can also be red or mottled with red or purple.
The flowers of Stapelia are the real show. They are produced at or near the base of the stem and have a star-shaped corolla with five fused petals that come to sharp points. The corolla has a wrinkly look and is often hairy, especially along the margins. Flowers can be variations of red, brown, yellow, and purple. In some species they can reach up to 18 inches wide. It is a unique looking flower, but even more unique is its scent. Because Stapelia flowers are pollinated by flies, they emit the scent of rotting animal flesh, an odor that flies can truly appreciate. In fact, flies can be so deceived by the appearance and scent of the flowers that they occasionally lay their eggs on or near them, expecting them to be a food source for their emerging larva.
Stapelia is easily propagated, especially by stem cuttings. Allow cuttings to dry in a cool, shady location for 48 hours and then stick them in a well-drained potting soil mix. Water moderately (preferably from below by placing the container in a tray and then filling the tray with water). Cuttings should root easily. All six of mine did.
Keep Stapelia in a sunny or mostly sunny location. If you live in USDA hardiness zone 9 or above, you can grow Stapelia outdoors. Otherwise, keep it indoors near a window that gets lots of sun. The main thing you will have to worry about is stem rot due to over watering. Grow Stapelia in a well-drained soil mix, water from below, and allow soil to dry out between waterings in order to avoid this.
As for me and my carrion flowers, like I said earlier, all six cuttings rooted. I transplanted one of them. Of the five left in the original pot, one rotted a couple weeks ago and another rotted during the writing of this post. The remaining ones still look healthy, but none of them have grown much since they rooted. The main problem I am having is that my house does not let in much sunlight. What appears relatively bright to me is probably cave-like to my carrion flowers. Until I remedy that situation, they may not grow much, they could continue to rot, and they probably won’t flower any time soon. However, if anything changes and I do get a flower out of them, I will make it a point to let you know. And Sandra will be proud.