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Growing Succulents in the Desert Column

(List of Growing Succulents in the Desert columns)

"Caralluma russeliana: The King of Stapeliads" by Mark Dimmitt

Pictures by Mark Dimmitt unless otherwise noted
This article may only be reprinted with the author's permission.

Of the many species of stapeliads in cultivation, Caralluma russelliana is the most massive (Figure 1). The four-angled, blue green stems are up to three inches thick and two feet tall. Plants branch freely and form a rather large shrub, creating a sculptural marvel that looks more like a sea creature than a land plant. Tennis ball-sized globes of small reddish-black flowers appear sporadically on stem tips throughout the warm season (Figures 2, 3). Like most stapeliads, the flowers stink of carrion, but the odor does not waft more than a few inches.

The species is widespread in the arid lands of East Africa and the Sahel. Synonyms include Caralluma retrospiciens, Desmidorchis acutangula, and other combinations of these names. This species loves heat and sun. However, stems will sunburn in our desert in full summer afternoon sun. They are intolerant of cold. While they can survive near-freezing temperatures, the stems are prone to develop unsightly brown blotches when nights are below 50-55 F. Keep the plants dry in winter to avoid root rot. Seedlings grow very fast. They can attain full size in two or three years if planted in large pots and watered and fed generously. This is safe if the medium is fast-draining. The roots are prone to rot if the medium stays wet for a few days. Plants seem to be short-lived. Growth slows greatly after the first few years, and few plants survive 10 years in good condition. The massive stems are heavy and rather brittle, especially where the thin base merges with the roots. Plants can be supported by planting them deep, or using several inches of rock top dressing. Even so, it is best to avoid moving them once they become large. Considering how ornamental this species is, there is very little information about it on the web except for numerous articles about its chemistry. The stems contain pregnane glycosides that are being investigated for possible medicinal properties.