Monday, September 19, 2016

Beguiled by a stinky blooming

My husband Ralph bent down for a closer look at the large starfish-shaped blooms that had spread out of the flowerbed and sprawled across the driveway.

Stapelia gigantea sprawling across the driveway

"It's supposed to smell like rotten meat," I told him. "But I don't notice the odor. Do you?"

"Not really," Ralph replied as he quickly straightened up.

It was probably good that my cautious spouse didn't put his nose too close to the large five-point blooms of stapelia gigantea. Commonly known as starfish flower, Zulu giant or carrion plant, this member of the Asclepiadaceae family is not a species admired for its fragrance — unless you're a bottle fly.

Bottle flies — those green and blue-colored insects that hover around garbage and decaying matter — love the way stapelia gigantea smells because they think it's rotting meat. Many plants attract pollinators with sweet floral scents, but this thornless succulent does it differently. It draws in pollinators by emitting the scent of a decaying carcass. It's one of many tricks this macabre magician of the botanical world has up it flesh-colored floral sleeves.

A fly is easily fooled by the foul odor emitted by stapelia gigantea 

Flies attracted to stapelia's odorous aroma are further fooled when they land on the succulent's petals. The petals, which can be up to 10-inches across, have a leathery texture edged with a thatch of long, white, hair-like fibers that mimic the feel of a dead animal's body.

Long white hairs are just one of many botanic tricks stapelia uses to fool flies into acting as pollinators

To a fly, the faux aroma and fake feel of flesh indicate a good place to lay eggs with a plentiful supply of food to nourish future larvae. However, no amount of fakery will fuel the needs of larvae when they have hatched. The larvae will not survive, but the plant will.

As flies traipse across the petals, their bodies brush against the male and female parts of the plant, transporting and transferring pollen, which ensures the survival of more stapelia gigantea plants in the future.

I received my original stapelia gigantea in 2012 at a plant exchange. All I knew about the plant I'd adopted was that it was a succulent with an interesting shape. Its green, knobby, four-ridged stems were about six inches long and an inch around. There were seven stems in the original container and for several months, that's all there were. Until one day when I noticed five or six more young stems just beginning to grow.

By the time summer was ending, the new stems were longer and buds had begun to form on the sides of several stems. As the buds developed, they resembled balloons in the process of being inflated. Day by day, the ballooning buds increased in size and rotundness until each one eventually burst open revealing a stunning, starfish-shaped flower beautified by thin bands of maroon stripes across tan-colored petals.

The ballooning bud

I'd never seen a flower like it and was instantly entranced.

Although individual flowers don't last long, their large size and unusual coloring more than make up for their brief life. Plus, a well-established specimen in a flowerpot or planting bed simultaneously produces multiple blooms in various stages of development. That means for a few weeks during late summer through early fall, this leave-me-alone-and-I'm-happy plant rewards gardeners with a spectacular show of slightly stinky, fully fascinating floral tomfoolery.

Although my original plant came in a container, at some point I transferred it to the ground in a sunny-to-partially-sunny, dry location. 

It didn't take long for my original plant to outgrow a small container  

In the years since, it has sent up many new stems and spread out of the planting bed next to the garage and is currently sprawling across the side of the concrete driveway where my husband drives his van.

This has become a small point of contention between us.

"You really should cut it back," Ralph reminds me repeatedly.

He's right. I should and, although he hasn't noticed, I've begun to lob off a few stems here and there to share with friends. Starting new plants is easy. Simply slice or break off a stem and stick it in the ground. No fuss. No water. Just plop it into soil pressing down to be sure it stands securely upright. A fun, easy plant to grow.

I love plants that demand little yet respond robustly. Stapelia gigantea may not be the most fragrant flower in the garden — at least from a human's point of view — but it's one of the most beguiling.


  1. I had one and loved it. I never planted it and it lived on air and the rain we had. It was in a chair so the rain stayed in the chair some. I never smelled the meaty awful smell. It final died years later. I loved the flower. It was beautiful.

    1. The odor has never bothered me either. I only smell it if I put my nose very close to the open bloom, which is not something I tend to do since it's growing across the ground and driveway.