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Stapelia grandiflora Curtis 1802
pronounced: stay-PEE-lee-uh gran-dih-FLOR-uh
(Apocynaceae – the oleander family)
synonyms: Stapelia ambigua Masson 1797
pronounced: stay-PEE-lee-uh am-BIG-yoo-uh
common name: Carrion Flower, Starfish Cactus
Stapelia was named by Linnaeus in honour of Johannes Bodaeus van Stapel (1602–1636), Dutch botanist and physician, whose life's ambition was to publish an annotated edition of the botanical works of Theophrastus (c 370–287 BC). However, he died before the book was finished, and it was edited and published in 1644 by his father, Egbert Bodaeus Stapelius as Theophrasti Eresii de Historia Plantarum†. Grandiflora is from the Latin, grandis, large, and flos, a flower.
Until it flowers, this little plant looks like just another of the little cacti‡ we grow as house plants. Its flower, however, turns it into a remarkable-looking plant. The name ‘Carrion Plant’ is due to the odour emitted by the flowers in order to attract flies in areas where other pollinating insects are scarce. The common name is shared by other species in the genus.
This is a clump-forming succulent with velvety upright stems. The species is highly variable, with many hybrids both in the wild and in cultivation. It hybridizes freely with Stapelia hirsuta in the little Karoo of South Africa. The flower of the latter species grows on a thicker and longer pedicel – apart from this, the two species are quite similar.
Most of the stems are about 9–10 cm high. They are soft, pale green or reddish, and slightly furrowed with upright hooks along the ridges. The stems are quadrangular lengthwise, a factor that allows expansion and contraction to compensate for any excess or scarcity of fluids inside: so they may appear sunken according to the lack of availability of water. There are some rudimentary leaves, which are short-lived.
Flowers are produced in summer, and they are very, very hairy! The blooms are produced from the base of younger shoots; they are large, flat, starfish-shaped, orange, dark red, deep purple-brown to chocolate, with transverse brown to whitish corrugations, and covered with long purplish hairs at the centre and on the margins.
Flies that are attracted by the odour pollinate the flowers, and often lay their eggs on the flowers. Fly larvae can often be seen on the flower surface. After pollination, twin seed horns (follicles) are produced. These are quite decorative in themselves, and often don’t appear till a year later.
Plants should be re-potted every couple of years. Propagation is easiest by stem cuttings. These should be allowed to dry for a day before planting. They should then be laid (not buried) on gritty compost, and will then root from the underside of the stems. Propagation is also possible from seed.
This is a food plant for the caterpillars of the Moncrch butterfly Danaus plexippus.
† of Theophrastus of Eresos concerning the History of Plants
‡ It is not, however, a cactus, nor is it related to the cacti
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2010
Page last updated 2nd March 2018