Succulent Stapelia gigantea resembles a cactus, but it’s not

Published on Wednesday, 25 October 2017 14:01 - Written by BROOKS KERR, Smith County Master Gardeners

I have been growing the succulent Stapelia gigantea for almost 50 years. I got a cutting from my wife’s aunt when we were dating and I have been growing and sharing it with others ever since.

The plant resembles a cactus with four-sided spineless stems or “fingers” that are 6 to 9 inches long. It is a member of the milkweed (Asclepiadaceae) family and there are 110 species. It comes from Africa and is grown as a pot plant requiring warm, dry conditions with partial to full sun.

Propagation is easiest by stem cutting. The cutting should dry or heal before potting in a loose, well-drained potting mix. The plant will need a rest period in winter in a cool, dry location, withholding water to a minimum.

The flowers are 10 to 14 inches across and resemble a starfish, thus the common name, “starfish cactus.” This succulent, however, is not a cactus. The large flowers are a muted yellow to tan in color with maroon transverse lines and a “hairy” surface. They usually appear in late summer and have a carrion smell that attracts flies, which then pollinate the flowers.

These plants do well in strawberry planters or any regular clay pot. They can also be grown in a hanging basket and will cascade over the edge. The plant requires little care and only occasionally will get mealy bugs, which are easy to take care of with a cotton swab and alcohol.