The Phyto-Philes: Variegated Carrion Flower

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Variegated Carrion Flower

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Variegated Carrion Flower.

I've already told you all about the amazing Giant Carrion Flower. Here I have for you a quite different carrion flower species. This is indeed the very first carrion flower to be discovered: Orbea variegata, which doesn't really have a common name. We might call it the variegated carrion flower, but its scientific name is actually shorter and easier to say!

First among Equals

Variegated Carrion Flower.

This carrion flower was actually discovered even before the European colonisation of South Africa started. Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape in 1652 with the aim of establishing a settlement which would supply the Dutch ships rounding the continent of Africa on their way to the East Indies, their actual trading goal. Prior to that, the Portuguese and Dutch had been routinely sailing past the Cape of Good Hope, often just stopping briefly to get some fresh water and meat, if they could manage to trade it from the native Khoi people. In 1624, a missionary named Justus Huernius, on his way to the East Indies, left his ship for a short exploration of the Table Bay region. There he saw and drew these fascinating little plants. He sent his drawings back to the Netherlands where his brother Otto passed them on to Johannes Bodaeus À Stapel, whose father Egbert published them in 1644. From then on, many of these plants were sent to Europe. In 1753, the pioneer taxonomist Linnaeus classified it as Stapelia variegata. Along with Stapelia hirsuta, it became the first carrion flowers known to science. The genus Stapelia was named for À Stapel, while Huernius was commemorated with the genus name Huernia which applies to yet another group of carrion flowers. In time a great diversity of carrion flowers became known, and the variegated carrion flower along with several others were given the genus Orbea.

This species was very well known in cultivation, being very easy to grow, and popular in succulent collections, before much was known about it in the wild. Today it is known from the Cape Peninsula northward to about Clanwilliam, and eastward into the Eastern Cape province to about Humansdorp. This is not a large range, but fortunately it is quite common in many different regions. It grows in a climate that is not very moist or very dry, and receiving mostly winter rainfall in the west, grading to year-round rainfall in the east. The plants are small tufts of succulent, leafless stems, rarely growing more than 7.5 cm/3" tall, but forming dense clumps up to 1 m/yard in diameter. They often grow in shallow or stony soil, sometimes beneath bushes but sometimes in full sun. They are typically found on fairly gentle slopes of mountains and hills, sometimes on rock ledges or on or at the margins of rock sheets. The stems are four-angled in cross section, with short, thorn-like but soft 'teeth' along the edges. In the shade they are a fresh green; where they get a bit more sun they are mottled with pinkish and purplish, and in full sun they can become uniform reddish or purple-brownish.

Unlike some other Orbeas which sport multiple flowers per inflorescence, this species has a single flower at the end of a short to long stalk-inflorescence. The flower can lie flat on the ground, or be lifted just above the short stems. The flowers are up to 8 cm/3.2" in diameter. Though nowhere as large as those of the giant carrion flower, they are amazingly shaped and marked! You can see this in my photos. These are all from my own specimens. The flowers are very variable in colour and markings but generally have a cream or yellow background, marked with pink, red, purple or blackish spots or blotches. They are rather thick and leathery in texture, with five, pointed petals. My nephew Christiaan, when I first showed him pictures of carrion flowers, told me that they weren't flowers but stars! They are somewhat reminiscent of starfish, too. But the most amazing thing about the variegated carrion flower is the structure in its centre. A thick, raised 'ring' or annulus rises from the inner portion of the petals. It has a bowl shape, in the middle of the bowl housing the complex structure, the gynostegium, which all carrion flowers have and which varies enormously between species.

The gynostegium is indeed a highly functional structure. Its aim is to guide a fly or other pollinator, attracted by the rotting-meat-like scent of the flower, towards its pollen packets. The fly's mouthparts or leg snags on one of these packets and pulls it out of the gynostegium. Flying to another flower, the fly is again guided by the gynostegium, and this time the pollen packet detaches from its leg and is deposited in just the right place on the flower. This way, the pollen is borne from one flower to another. The pollen packet that has been deposited on the new flower, stays there and a long tube grows from it into the flower's centre where the ovaries are, and the actual male sex cells travel down this tube to merge with the female cells in the ovaries. Once pollination is achieved, the 'fruit' develops, which in carrion flowers are typically paired, pointed follicles called 'bokhorings' (goat horns) in Afrikaans. They split open to release the flat seeds, each of which has a tuft of white fluff easily caught by the wind, and so their seeds are dispersed into their environment. Seeds falling to the ground detach from their tufts, and if they are in a suitably fertile and moist spot, will germinate and rapidly grow into new little plants.

Growing Orbea variegata

Variegated Carrion Flower.

This little succulent is very easy to grow. The easiest way is by simply detaching pieces of stem. They form natural joints, and if pulled will tend to break off at these joints, but it is better to use a sharp knife to cut them off cleanly. A clear sap will exude from the wound and will soon dry to seal it. Put the detached piece in a shady, dry spot, and keep it there for two or three days, so that its wound can also heal fully. Now plant it: use a sandy soil mix, and insert it just a cm/half an inch or so into the medium. Alternatively, place the section of stem on top of the soil mix, and put a small stone on it (along the bottom edge of the stem) to hold it down. Keep it on the dry side of moist; it will root in one or two weeks, and soon will grow new stems.

This species also easily grows from seeds. Seeds will only form if the plants are pollinated by pollen from individuals genetically different from themselves. Thus in cultivation you will need at least two different 'clones' of this species. Pollination can be performed artificially with very fine tweezers or needles; but if the flies are there they will do it for you! Collect the seeds as soon as the follicles open or they will all blow away (so, keep an eye on your plants so you can see when they are ready to split … the 'seam' at the top of the follicle will start to open). Detach the white tufts, put the seeds on top of the soil mix (sandy and well-draining) and sprinkle a layer of sand over them. Keep on the dry side of moist. They should soon germinate! Little plants are susceptible to fungal attacks. You can protect them either by using a fungicide (in the water you water them with) or by watering them infrequently. Once they are grown up, they are hardier.

The plants usually grow very well in their first year or two, flowering without a problem. They only tend to be somewhat short-lived. This is not always so, but over the long term they tend to be affected by fungi, and also by insects, primarily woolly bugs in their roots and scale bugs on their stems. To keep your plants for many years, inspect them regularly. It is good practice to multiply your plants, growing new individuals from healthy stem sections each year or two. You can treat old plants with an insecticide and perhaps a fungicide. You can re-pot plants, inspecting their roots and manually cleaning off woolly bugs (brushing them off with an old toothbrush works). Practicing good plant hygiene will pay off. Especially important is not to over-water the plants. They do well if the soil is allowed to completely dry out between waterings. Aside from that, they do appreciate fertile soil and/or occasional feeds with fertilizer.

This species can be grown outdoors in warm, not-too-wet regions. It is an excellent subject for covering open patches between larger plants in a rock or succulent garden. It can tolerate light frost. In cold and/or wet regions it is easy to grow indoors in small pots. Clay pots work well. A good place for a little variegated carrion flower is a sunny windowsill. This species is not nearly as smelly as the giant carrion flower, and should present no problems when grown in the house!

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