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Growing Succulents in the Desert Column, August 2010

(List of Growing Succulents in the Desert columns)

Stapelia flavopurpurea: A sweet starfish flower

By Mark Dimmitt

(This article may only be reprinted with the permission of the author)

Most succulent collectors have grown at least a few stapeliads, a tribe of the former milkweed family Asclepiadaceae (The family was recently combined into the dogbane family, Apocynaceae). All stapeliads are succulents, and they bear a wide range of flower sizes and shapes. Most species share the trait of being pollinated by flies and carrion beetles. Therefore the flowers look and smell like dead things. There will be a future article about these.

The featured species is one of the few exceptions; it isn’t a “carrion flower”. The flowers don’t look like rotting meat, and they have a powerful and delightful sweet fragrance. They’re still fly-pollinated, but they offer nectar (energy food) instead of the false promise of a place to lay eggs. However, the flowers appear to produce no nectar; they’re still apparently relying on deceit to get pollinated.

The flowers are born in late summer; healthy plants produce many one-inch star-shaped flowers with a plethora of frills, spikes, and warts. The color ranges from brown to bright yellow-green, often with purple centers. The penetrating fragrance is reminiscent of honey or some cookies or candy being baked in grandma’s kitchen.


This species is easy to grow. It does best in filtered sunlight in any well-drained potting medium. Protect it from frost in the winter. Like most stapeliads, plants become senescent after several years, so they should be restarted from cuttings when growth and flowering slow. The best time is in late summer when they’re growing most actively. The one problem I’ve encountered is that if the stem is even partially buried, the plant will usually rot. Cuttings should simply be laid on the surface of the potting medium. Healthy young plants grow rampantly. An easy way to propagate them is to place empty pots filled with medium adjacent to a plant when it begins to run over the edge of its pot. Masses of stems may hang a foot or more over the edge of a pot for a time, but the joints are loosely attached and easily broken.

List of Growing Succulents in the Desert columns