Tag Archives: succulents

Bloom of the corpse flower

When discussing plant identification and origins, I regularly tell people “The Latin never lies.” I get this constantly when discussing so-called “primrose” plants, where the flowers receiving that name in Georgia are drastically different from those here in Texas and from those in England. That’s because “primrose” is a descriptive term, not an actual name, referring to the first plant to flower in spring. Collect all of the various primroses known worldwide in one place, and put on nametags with proper Greco-Latin binomial nomenclature on them, and their complete lack of relationship becomes obvious, as would just looking at them.

The understanding of relationships is why I’ll make a point of bringing up Latin names when asked questions about carnivorous plants. Mention the common name “pitcher plant”, and I immediately ask “So…which one?” I don’t expect others to know the Latin for plants they saw casually in a garden center two years ago, but if they’re described as “a little bit like a calla lily,” it’s fairly clear that we’re both talking about Sarracenia, a North American pitcher plant. If the description includes “flat leaves with pitchers on long stems coming off the tips,” it’s invariably one of the Old World Nepenthes plants. And if the plant described matches the description of the South American pitcher plant, Heliamphora, or the Australian pitcher plant Cephalotus, my first question is always “And exactly WHERE is this garden center?”

And that’s where we come to one of my follies. A decade ago, when I was first started digging into the vagaries of botany, my wife and I joined her parents for a trip to the Parker County Peach Festival in Weatherford, just due west of Fort Worth. While everybody else was shivving fifth-graders for the world-famous peach ice cream (and I didn’t blame them a bit: those fifth-graders are just lethal when they have access to machetes, and they usually work in packs), I struck up a conversation with an event vendor selling odd plants near the town square. One of her offerings was a package of odd cuttings from some kind of succulent I didn’t recognize, and that she couldn’t identify. “The person who sold me the original plant called it a ‘corpse flower,'” she said as she was bagging it up. I didn’t hear anything else, as I was too busy screaming “Shut up and take my money!”, so that was about it.

The only good news was that I discovered why it had the name “corpse flower”. Those original segments rapidly and enthusiastically rooted and took over their containers, and dropped handfuls of segments every time they were moved. Right now, the greenhouse is full of descendants from that original package, and every autumn, they throw off these fascinating five-pointed blooms.


When they bloom, the name “corpse flower” becomes obvious. While the flowers don’t actually produce a stench per se, their scent draws in flies as pollinators, and on a warm day, the flowers can be practically dripping with flies that assume that they’re tracking carcasses. However, with the bloom buds being roughly the size of a pencil eraser, they don’t necessarily stand out from across the yard.


Care and maintenance were the easy part, so the ordeal started with the identification. At first, it appeared to be a member of the genus Stapelia, a group of succulents native to Africa and Asia. The blooms didn’t match any reference I could find, either online or in various books on succulents, and that’s when I discovered that Stapelia has two related genera, Orbea and Huernia, and the blooms and coloration don’t match any of those, either. The research continues, but in the meantime, the Czarina watches the blooms and comments “Wouldn’t these make great inspirations for jewelry?”

Introducing Euphorbia flanaganii

Euphorbia flanaganii, the medusa head

At Triffid Ranch shows, one of the big draws, obviously, comes when I introduce passersby to the plants. All that I need to say is “Nearly everything here is carnivorous. Guess which ones aren’t.” Suddenly, it becomes a Gahan Wilson-designed Easter egg hunt, with everyone trying to see which plant didn’t consume flesh in its off time.

Euphorbia flanaganii, commonly known as “Medusa Head,” fools them every time. Between its tentacles and what appears to be multiple blunt-beaked mouths in the center, many of those passersby swear that it moves to follow them. When I have to admit that no, it isn’t actually carnivorous, they’re actually disappointed, because it makes an exceptional carnivore mimic.

E. flanaganii gets its common name from both its general reptilian appearance and the fact that it will grow to the size of a human head if left alone. It’s a member of what are referred to as medusoid euphorbias, a group of succulents native to South Africa. The entire Euphorbia genus is widely spread across the Old World, filling many of the niches filled by cactus in the Americas, and the variety of forms seen in the genus is simply breathtaking. E. flanaganii is one of many arresting oddballs, and it combines both ease in care with just a touch of danger. But I’ll get to that.

Euphorbia flanaganii
The structure of a typical medusa head is separated into the arms and the central caudex. As the plant grows, new arms form near the edges of the caudex, gradually spreading out as the plant grows, and the old arms shrivel up and die. Although a succulent, the medusa head needs much more water than would be acceptable or tolerable from most cactus or even most aloes, and it warns of a lack of water by gradually curling up its arms toward the center. It thrives under direct sun, and needs at least six hours of direct sun per day for decent health and growth. Best of all, once it’s situated and happy, it demonstrates its contentment with life by producing a ring of chartreuse blooms, each about the size of a ball bearing, around the caudex. The flowers don’t look like much under visible light, but they absolutely shine under ultraviolet lights.

Now, I mentioned “a touch of danger,” and that danger is why E. flanaganii shouldn’t be kept within easy reach of children or pets. The arms are tough and flexible, but if broken, they exude large amounts of latex sap. Said sap is about as toxic as that of other euphorbias: do NOT let it get in your eyes, and I highly recommend washing hands or other skin exposed to medusa head sap before getting said skin anywhere near your mouth. While none of the available literature mentions it, I’ve noted that the sap also has a phototoxic effect if it’s not washed off immediately. I had no reaction on my hand after getting some sap on my hand until I had no choice but to get out into the sun about an hour later. The resultant burn blister on the affected area taught me to wash my hands thoroughly afterwards.

On brighter subjects, E. flanaganii makes an exceptional container plant, and it can also be put into gardens so long as it’s protected from freezes. Even then, it’s remarkably tough. I had one head-sized flanaganii that I feared had died from exposure to the week-long deep freeze in Dallas in February 2011, and it didn’t make it. However, enough of the arms survived that they grew into new plants.

That’s the other bit of joy with working with E. flanaganii. Once it reaches a certain size, a mother plant will produce pups on the ends of older arms. The growth starts as a swelling at the end of an arm, and rapidly grows its own caudex and arms. After a time, if they don’t root on their own, the arm shrivels and allows the pup to roll away, where it rapidly grows if given access to soil and water. If you’re not careful, you can end up with a whole greenhouse full of them.

While they give no indication of ever becoming an invasive plant, medusa heads seem otherwise perfectly suited for North Texas conditions so long as they get watered regularly during the worst parts of summer. They don’t sunburn easily. They have no insect pests in the US, at least so far as I’ve noted, and even stink bugs stay away from them. They require good drainage, but they’re not fussy about soil conditions otherwise, and they grow well over a wide range of pH levels. They don’t seem to be susceptible to any parasites or diseases seen among other succulents, and they require only the occasional dash of fertilizer. Oh, and when mulched with Star Wars action figure parts, particularly Boba Fett and stormtrooper figures, people tend to go nuts over them.

Tiffany at ConDFW

— Many thanks to South African horror writer Nerine Dorman for turning me onto the joys of the entire Euphorbia clan. She and her husband have been raising South African succulents for years, and she’s forgotten more about the euphorbias than I’ll ever learn.

Lovecraft’s Birthday

Saturday, August 20 is the 121st birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, possibly one of the most influential American writers of the last century. Not only has his unique contributions done for horror fiction what van Gogh did for painting, but his work is distinct enough that the adjective “Lovecraftian” is used by people completely unfamiliar with his stories. (One day, I”ll make sure that “Leiberesque” gets the same use, but I’m still working on it.)

I also have a personal interest in “Grandpa Theobald,” as he called himself, as he’s a distant relative on my mother’s side of the family. In fact, if I’d been just one more week premature, I’d share a birthday with him instead of with Glen Matlock. (Hell, if I’d been a few hours more premature, I’d be exactly the same age as Shirley Manson. How’s that for a bummer?) Ergo, that love of the unknown goes back a little ways.

In tribute to my famed cousin, and in hopes of fending off heat-stress psychosis, it may be time for a trip to the garden center to make a Lovecraft-themed garden. Obviously, I already have a Buddha’s Hand citron, and I’m currently checking with a source further south for those seeking one of these beautiful trees in Texas. Carnivores are an obvious choice, especially with the cultivars named after HPL’s characters, and then we have the succulents. If you’re in the need for something that really stretches the meaning of the term “Lovecraftian”, may I recommend giving a hand to a medusa head (Euphorbia flanaganii) or a rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis)?

Review: Bizarre Botanicals by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Bizarre Botanicals: How to Grow String-Of-Hearts, Jack-In-The-Pulpit, Panda Ginger, and Other Weird and Wonderful Plants by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross,. Timber Press, 2010. 283 pp., $24.95 US. ISBN-13: 9781604690767

Lists of odd plants are such subjective things. The local weeds in Capetown are horrendously exotic in New York, and the perspectives of casual browsers in the local grocery store floral section are a bit lacking compared to those of professional botanists and horticulturalists. It also depends upon personal tastes. I could make the argument that tumbleweeds (Salsola spp.) are just as odd as the corpse flower Amorphophallus, but the question is whether I could back it up. Equally importantly, if I were asked to come up with a similar list, would I merely be copying someone else’s, or working from my own personal experience?

As far as Bizarre Botanicals is concerned, it’s a good start on a decent odd plant listing. Problem is, anything other than “a good start” would come in about eighteen volumes and arrive at the door via forklift. The most impressive aspect of this book isn’t that authors Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross managed to find at least 77 suitably odd plants to include in their listing. It’s that they managed to stop at only this many, and I can only imagine how many they left out.

As the introduction states, the original focus was on carnivores, and the first tip that you’re looking at a Timber Press book is the beautiful photography. For serious carnivore junkies, it’s interesting but not loaded with surprises. And that, Officer, is when the book shifted into ferns. That’s when our authors dropped the blue oil fern (Microsorum thailandicum) into my lap. It veered over into the passionflowers (Passiflora), the Czarina’s favorites, and then skipping to her new love, the bat plant (Tacca chantrieri.

Again, personal tastes intrude. While the chapter on “Hearts-a-Burstin'” and heart-shaped flowers was intriguing, I personally would have gone in the direction of edible oddballs, such as the miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum) or the fruit of Monstera deliciosa. (Of the latter, I love the fruit-salad flavor of the flower spike, but the immature spike itself always brought to mind sex toys for Silurians.) Even so, the whole hearts chapter is a great subject for goth gardening, and my only regret is that many aren’t suitable for Texas heat.

And then we’re back in the running with a thumbnail guide to odd orchids. Again, the surprise was that the authors were able to stop before turning in a 5000-page manuscript. Of particular note is that they recognized the singular wonder of the trigger orchid Catasetum saccatum: in an odd way, if not for my knowing about C. saccatum and misunderstanding an Australian friend’s comment, I never would have been introduced to the whole triggerplant (Stylidium) family. Personal tastes intruding again: I would have dedicated at least one section to the triggerplants, but I can understand why they were left out. They’re still remarkably poorly known in the US and Europe, and they’d make a great subject for a sequel.

If there’s anything approximating a disappointment in the listings, it’s with the succulents section. Quite seriously, how the hell could anybody do justice to your personal list? Arguing about the merits of true cactus versus the euphorbias is reason to pull out chainsaws and rubbing alcohol at twenty paces, and somehow our authors managed to include a few very good examples and mention the stapeliads as well. You can almost hear the authors whimpering about the three or four they wanted to squeeze in before the editor said “Anything more, and we sell you for body parts.”

I’ll also mention on caveat, which also impinges upon the length of the book. The title reads “How to Grow String-of-Hearts, et al“, but the growing instructions are generally limited to growing zones in the US and some basics on soil quality and light requirements. Still, it’s a lot better than the truncated guides on most plant tags, and if there was an argument for a book augmented with 2-D barcodes and a very large online library, this is it.

I’m regularly asked by friends about books that might make gardening appealing to teenagers. I’d put this one right at the top of the list. Sure, they may get overly enthusiastic about growing difficult species. And?