The foul beauty of Stapeliads (Courtesy Phillipine Star)

Orchids, together with roses, are acclaimed worldwide as the most beautiful of all flowers — though I’ve always been partial to succulent blooms myself (surprise, surprise!). For me, the most beautiful, intriguing, maybe even the weirdest flowers in this sphere are the flowers produced by a succulent group called the Stapeliads.

Kambroo.com is the website of one of the leading suppliers of South African and other African succulents in the world. Based in South Africa and run by Kotie Retief and Sean Gildenhuys, this succulent nursery and source for excellent literature on succulents produces some of the best-grown specimens you will find anywhere.

They had this to say about this fascinating group: “The Stapeliads form part of the Apocynaceae family, formerly known as the Asclepiadaceae family. There are about 330 species distributed throughout the old-world countries. Stapeliads are easy to grow and make good collector’s items. They are often called the ‘orchids of the succulent world’ and there is an immense diversity in flowers, color, size and shape. The flowers are usually accompanied by a fetid or evil smell (hence the common name ‘Carrion flowers’), although some have a sweet honey smell. There is also diversity in plant shapes and sizes.”

As you can see from the various photos, these plants produce a truly staggering variety of intricate, interesting and wonderfully-textured array of blooms. One of the rarest genera of the Stapeliads is the Brachystelmas. These plants produce a caudex or swollen stem base from which many produce vine-like branches and non-succulent leaves. The flowers are absolutely breathtaking. My favorite happens to be the blooms of B. buchanani. For me, this genus easily tops in terms of flower beauty.

Another favorite is B. maritae. Its flowers look almost like an alien starfish of some sort (and yellow also happens to be my favorite color). When my B. maritae was in flower, I had a visitor from Barcelona who is also a biologist-botanist. When I showed the flowers, he looked at them with great interest, then commented that for him, the flowers resembled some kind of insect.

Now, there are flowers which, in fact, mimic insects in order to attract the males of certain insect species to try to engage in “intercourse” with the flower in order to effect pollination. The insect itself can’t pollinate the flower with its God-given endowments, but while engaged in the “act” with the flower, its body gets covered in the flower’s pollen. When it leaves one plant for another and tries the “act” all over again, it is then able to pollinate this flower with the pollen from the previous one. You may find this unbelievable, but I kid you not. These are some of the wonders of Mother Nature.

So, I found the comment of my Barcelona-based friend most interesting, indeed.

While they are beautiful, many of the Stapeliads’ flowers have a really foul stench — like the smell of fresh pooh-pooh or some other rotten organic matter. This is again another wonderful element of Mother Nature. The carrion smell attracts another favorite insect-pollinator — the langaws and bangaws of the world. Flies absolutely love many Stapeliad flowers! I always find it a treat when I have one of my Stapeliads flowering (my favorite is Pseudolithos) when I have visitors to my greenhouse. I let my guests take a good whiff of a Pseudolithos flower and, needless to say, they are all stunned by what their noses encounter, thinking that I’ve just played a dirty trick on them. I always get a nice chuckle from these episodes.

With some notable exceptions, like Brachystelmas, Pseudolithos, Lavrania (formerly Trichocaulon/Larryleachia) and some Hoodias, Stapeliads are generally fairly easy to care for. In habitat, most Stapeliads grow in partially protected areas (under a bush or tree, between some rocks, etc.), so most are best kept by providing either part sun with afternoon protection, or a shaded greenhouse position. This is not the case for the more difficult Stapeliads I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. These plants prefer a stronger light and more open exposure. They also require less and very careful watering (i.e., once a week under my growing conditions at Tagaytay Highlands). The other Stapeliad families can take more watering, even twice to thrice a week.

Air circulation is very important, especially in a humid environment like ours. This will drastically decrease the chances of fungal infection. With the exception again of the more sensitive Stapeliads mentioned earlier, most are fairly tolerant of a wide range of soil types. The key is for the growing medium to be porous. For the more sensitive species, I recommend using only a purely mineral-based mix with a good sandy garden loam as the base. If you follow these general guidelines, you will find your Stapeliads rewarding you throughout the year with the most beautiful blooms in the succulent world.