Giant Starfish Flower

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Giant Starfish Flower, Stapelia gigantea

 Family: Asclepiadaceae

Also known as: Carrion Flower, Carrion Plant, Carrion Lily, Toad Cactus, Zulu Giant or Hairy Giant Starfish Flower

Perched in a pot on the Pool Terrace, overlooking the Santiago Bay, this sprawling succulent fast captures the eyes of visitors.  This is particularly more so when it is blooming as the large blossoms of the Giant Starfish Flower are simply glorious to behold!  When blooming, our guests always stop to marvel at them.

In the Asclepiadaceae family there are around 100 species of the Stapelia perennials.  They originated in the semi-arid tropical and subtropical regions of Africa and India.  This particular one – the Stapelia gigantean – comes from northwestern South Africa.  A rather curious and intriguing specimen, it has a major flowering (and smelling) attitude!

Resembling a cactus, but without thorns, its blooms seem to explode from leafless, knobby, fleshy, ascending, four-ridged stems.  The bloom’s scalloped ridges sport upward pointing soft “teeth.”  While in the species whole the stem colors vary from bright green through olive green to a brownish green, the color of the Giant Starfish is a more pale green.

There are four distinct flanks on each stem rendering the stems 4-angled. The University of Florida, Lee County, IFAS Extension Service succinctly describes these as having “flanks (that) are coarsely toothed with small upright tubercles (round nodules or a small knobby prominence) at the edge. The tubercles produce short-lived rudimentary leaves. The stems are surprisingly soft to the touch.”

It sometimes seems to me that the blossoming of the Giant Starfish Flower is, more or less, a hit or miss situation – (the more proper term, I believe, is intermittently).   I say this because there are certainly times when no blooms show at all.  However, one morning recently I noted that, in one stage or another, our plant had seven of those rather awesome appearing blooms.   

As to plant height, figure between six to, possibly, thirteen inches and a half inches (15.24 – 34.29 cm).  (I just went down and measured one of ours and, happily, found it to be right at that maximum width.  “I told it “Good bloomin’ job, congratulations!”)   In others of this species, these beautiful, attention getting, perfect star shaped flowers can be as big as eighteen inches (45.7 cm) across.  But sweet of aroma they most definitely are not! 

Actually, they have a rather putrid, nauseating, smell.  Hence the alternate name of Carrion Flower, or as our senior gardener, José, calls them Flora de Muerto. (Some say that its odor is similar to that of rotting flesh!)  Smell notwithstanding, these stunningly attractive blooms are often flesh-colored, sometimes rimmed in crimson and are covered with soft, white, silky hairs.  

To the compound eyes of carrion insects these hairs resemble a layer of mold growing on rotting matter which, in bug speak, translates to “Yum yum!”  This “scent of death” attracts carrion beetles and blowflies, flesh flies and midges to the central orifice where the male and female floral sex organs are located.   

These exotic looking, five-petal flowers are also found in the colors of red, yellow, brown and purple.  With beauty within beauty, often there is a small star within the star shaped bloom.  In maturity these plants should grow to about a foot (30.48 cm) tall.  So large are these flowers that they generally come to rest on the ground.

As plastic tends to retain moisture longer, these are best grown in clay pots.  Good drainage is important, hence be careful to not overwater.  They are prone to root rot, so use a good, sterile potting soil, leaning toward sandy in texture.  Grown indoors or out, it handles both humid and dry air. 

What with blooms that are larger and more pendulous than its stems they are excellent plants when used in a semi-cascading venue.

They’re, purportedly most happy in morning sun and afternoon shade – ours is in full sun all of the time. They are easy to propagate. One, super easy way, is by dividing the root ball.  Another is simply to cut or snap off a stem, let it air-dry in shade until it has calloused over and then plant it right side up.  Once it is established, fertilize it annually in the spring.  Do not water during the cold months.

Planted with smaller succulents they are – in the words of the botanical great, Robert Lee Riffle, “wonderfully outlandish.”  I – though with nowhere near the botanical intellect as he – wholly agree!

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Just above the right-most point of this Giant Starfish Flower bloom (taken moments before transplanting) is one of the many insects following its sickly smell. . . but is not that blossom beautiful?

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Attractive from all angles, the large and heavy flower generally
comes to rest on the ground.

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Seen from above, its leafless, knobby, fleshy and ascending, four-ridged stems with scalloped ridges sporting upward pointing soft “teeth” are well seen – along with a blossom soon to open.