STAPELIAS (carrion flowers) are succulent plants with thick, four-angled stems that usually branch from the base and grow up to about 8 inches long. They appear to be leafless, but the edges of the stems carry closely set, soft "teeth," which are in reality vestigial leaves. The great fascination of these plants is their remarkable flower formation. The five-petaled flowers, which grow singly on short stalks arising from the bases of stems, are star-shaped and may measure from under 2 inches across in some species to more than 12 inches in others. Flower color is brownish, yellowish, or purple, often with the basic color mottled or striped with another. The flowers of some species are coated with short hairs. The odor that these flowers emit—often not unlike the stench of decaying animal flesh— seems highly unpleasant to most people. For this reason, and also because they are not easy to grow successfully, stapelias have never been popular house plants. The flowers are nevertheless both interesting and beautiful. Flowering occurs at any time from late spring to early fall, and each bloom lasts for several days. When the flower fades, it is followed by a horn-shaped pod neatly packed with silky, tufted seeds.
RECOMMENDED STAPELIAS 5. gigantea (giant stapelia, giant toad plant, or Zulu giant) has one of the biggest flowers of any known plant: 12 inches across (sometimes a little more). The petals, which are yellow with crosswise red lines, are thickly covered with pale purple hairs. The flowers grow from the lower part of smooth, upright, pale green stems 6—8 inches long and about I inch across. S. gigantea flowers in mid- to late summer, but it flowers neither dependably nor profusely. When they do appear, the spectacular blooms have only a faintly unpleasant odor. S. variegata (starfish plant, star-flower, or toad plant), the most commonly grown species, is one of the smaller stapelias. It has stems up to 6 inches long and \ inch across, and the flowers are 2-3 inches across. The stems are shiny and bright green, withbrownish markings. They grow upright at first but tend to sprawl as the plant ages. The hairless flowers, abundantly produced in summer, are yellow spotted with dark purplish brown. They smell rather like an overflowing garbage can.
Light To encourage flowering, grow stapelias in direct sunlight throughout the year.
Temperature Warm, dry air is right for these plants. Never let the temperature fall much below 6o°F. Although some species can tolerate lower temperatures, stapelias are likely to develop black spot and other fungus diseases in cool conditions.
Watering Water with great caution at all times. If the potting mixture is too wet, these plants tend to rot at the base. If the mixture is allowed to become too dry, the stems shrivel and die back from the tips. The best way to water is from below. During the active growth period stand pots in about three inches of water until the potting mixture is thoroughly moist. Remove pots from the container of water as soon as the sandy surface of the mixture is damp to the touch. Do not water again until the top two inches of the mixture have dried out. During the winter rest period stand pots in water for only five minutes every two weeks, removing the pots well before the surface of the potting mixture has time to become even slightly moist.
Feeding Apply a liquid high-potassium, tomato-type fertilizer once a month during the active growth period only. Add the fertilizer to the water in which the pots are placed for watering.
Potting and repotting Use a porous potting mixture consisting of equal parts of coarse sand or perlite and standard soil-based mixture, but use only the sand or perlite for the top inch of the mixture. Stapc-lias grow rapidly. Start them in 3-inch pots, but move each plant into a pot one size larger when its stems appear to be crowding against the edges of the pot. This should be done in spring, so that the new season's growth will be unhindered, but it may be necessary to repot again in later summer or fall. Try to disturb roots as little as possible during the repotting process. The maximum pot size required for most stapelias is 6 inches because these plants do not have very extensive root systems.
Propagation Stapelias can be raised very easily from seed. Seeds will germinate in less than a week at 70°F, and young seedlings grow fast. Such smaller-growing plants as S. variegata will probably flower within three years of sowing the seed. Larger ones may take a year or two longer.
Cuttings taken in summer can also be used for propagation. It is often possible to pull away a single stem complete with roots. Let the stem stand for a day; then plant it in a 3-inch pot of the mixture recommended for adult stapelias. Alternatively, cut a stem from the plant with a sharp knife, allow it to dry for four or five days, and gently press the cut end into a 3-inch pot of mixture. In either case treat the cutting immediately in the same way as a mature specimen.
Special points Stem rotting is a constant danger with stapelias. After taking a stem cutting for propagation, do not permit the cut surface of the parent plant to become moist. If water touches the wound during the first three or four weeks, rot can set in and destroy the entire plant.
Keep an eye out for fungus attack, especially in winter. If black marks become visible (usually at stem tips), use a fungicide
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