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Orbea variegata-Starfish Cactus, Toad Cactus

Orbea variegata, Starfish Cactus, Toad Cactus, Carrion Flower,Indoor gardeningOrbeas are a genus of succulent plants in the Apocynacea family, they're evergreen- leafless plants native to Africa. Starfish Cactus and Toad Cactus are misleading common names because this plant is not a cacti-it is a succulent. A better common name for this Orbea is Carrion Flower or African Carrion Flower.

I find this succulent plant to be easy to grow indoors and I think I've discovered the trick to get it to flower. When growing cacti and succulent plants the trick is to mimic the growing conditions in the wild when we're growing them indoors. In the winter I reduce the amount of water I give my succulents and will only water when I notice some shrinking of the stems of this Orbea. Since the plant goes dormant in the winter giving it bright light isn't really an issue- it does well in a west facing window.

This succulent came to be in my possession after I was given three cuttings by a member of a cactus and succulent forum I frequent. The first year I grew my cuttings on the front porch where it didn't receive much light and very little water. This year I put my plant in the back porch where it was exposed to the elements. I quickly learned that this African plant couldn't tolerate fun sun in Chicago. The stems turned a maroon color and started to shrivel. I moved it below a large plant that would shade it from the midday sun while still allowing it to get morning and evening sun and rain. Once I started to mimic the light conditions it receives in the wild I noticed a dramatic increase in growth and even the formation of a couple of flower buds on one stem.

In my indoor garden I water very carefully giving it just enough water to keep it alive to reduce the risk of root rot. But I've noticed that on the back patio where temperatures can get pretty high my Orbea takes more water than usual to maintain plump, green stems. When I bring it back indoors I may transplant it into a hanging pot because the new growth drapes lower than the bottom of the pot. The smaller stems sometimes break and fall off easy but I just stick them in a new pot and start to root and make more plants.

The flowers on the succulent plant are pretty spectacular and have been worth the two year wait while I learned how to grow it. When you observe the five lobed flower you can see why it is commonly called Starfish Cactus and the variegated color does remind me of a toad. Today my sister asked me why it smelled like a dead mouse on the back deck and before she could even finish the sentence I was running out the door camera in hand. If you don't know or haven't guessed yet (by the common name) the flower stink. They emit a putrid odor reminiscent of rotting flesh in order to attract flies for pollination. Carrion flowers do such a good job at mimicking rotting flesh that flies flock to it looking for a moist place to lay eggs. Eventually some maggots will appear on the flower where they'll die because there won't be anything for them to eat.

Even though the flowers smell bad these don't smell that bad and can be grown by an indoor gardener provided you have an area outside you can place it while in bloom. Some Carrion Flowers get much larger and have a stronger odor but I think the smell from O. variegata is tolerable if you don't get too close.

"Ah the pity, beauty is wasted on the flies."


  1. Anonymous7:45 AM

    What an amazing, unusual and intriguing cactus. Thanks so much for sharing. Sara from farmingfriends

  2. Glad you reminded me that this Stapelia variegata is now called Orbea. It's hard to keep up with all the changes in classification. Luckily, the plants stay the same regardless of what they are called. I'm still waiting for my O. variegata to bloom this year. It doesn't look promising.

  3. Very Unusual and beautiful plant!
    Cactus seem to have the most beautiful flowers! So , glad you shared all the interesting info on it also!!

  4. Yikes ! I just realized that when I redid my blogroll your site was somehow omitted ! So sorry ! I've corrected that mistake.

    Been really busy all summer installing gardens and haven't visited as often. Your photos are just unbelievably beautiful !

  5. I guess you could call this a "conversation piece" plant! As in everyone asking... what is it, where did it come from? This is really a spectacular plant, thanks for the info on it.

  6. Hey everyone,

    Thanks for stopping by and taking a moment to comment.

    No rain,

    Maybe you should drop yours like I did. Mine fell out of the pot and a few days later it was setting blooms. I wonder if the stress of being unpotted contributed to the bloom. Poor thing probably thought it was going to die. :)


    No worries :0) I've been checking up on your blog and saw one of your installations earlier in the summer.

    Catherine, Sarah & Lost Roses,

    Glad you all like the plant. I've been having fun showing it to the kids in the 'hood and seeing their reaction at the smell of the flower. Nobody has expected it coming from such a nice bloom.

  7. This is an interesting-looking plant. I love the flower colours, though wouldn't be too thrilled with the scent. I would like to have one now!

  8. Anonymous2:32 PM

    You know, that is the most AMAZING flower I've ever seen I think! ONe simply must adore mother nature for creating such colorful flowers. What a pattern!

    I'm speachless. Admiring it. Wow!

  9. Wow! Those are fantastic flowers!

  10. Very unusual plant and thanks for the growing tips!

  11. What an interesting plant. The flower is really beautiful! Thanks for telling us all about it.

  12. Hello Kate, Captain, Moe, CG and Jean.

    Glad you all liked the bloom too...thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  13. Anonymous3:31 PM

    This is prob one of the only blogs I read, plant info is so immense, every bit helps, thanks!! I live at the foot of the mountain where Orbea was once endemic (altho now I'm sure it is all over the world!). I have had the plant growing on my balcony in the same place for three years, full harsh African sun, unbearable winds and out in the rain all winter. In such conditions the plant grows very stout, sending up new leaves instead of height. They remain their variegated colour, the purple, as a sunscreen but do very well, the new growth more variegated. Now (April end) is when they bloom, they send up many flowers and I hav even had a four-petalled flower bloom. This plant has spread three times its original size in the short amount of time. The lengthening of Orbea is basically them looking for more light, they grow in full sun on Table Mountain, some days temp reaching 40 deg Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). They will only bloom on new leaves.

  14. Anonymous3:33 PM

    Another interesting point, they lose their scent if they open at night because flies are diurnal, it is interesting that they can 'block' their glands in such a way.

  15. Jan, UK12:56 PM

    Thank you for the interesting and informative article. I've been trying to find out the identity of this mystery plant ever since it started flowering and I began to smell death in my kitchen! A little plant labelled 'cactus' and bought for 50p has stimulated much conversation. And what a flower!

  16. Sorry for replying so late to the last two comments.

    @Pelargonium thanks for the response and I'm glad you like the posts here. Interesting to read about how you're growing them and the success you're having with them.


    I had a similar experience with another plant recently. LOL, it isn't a pleasant experience to wake up to the smell of "death" and wonder where it came from, is it? Good luck with your plant.

  17. Anonymous7:45 AM

    I recently inherited a starfish cactus and soon after repotting it began to grow like crazy and produce buds. It looked really GREAT and was very excited as the first bloom opened yesterday morning! By the afternoon however the stems closest to the bloom were beginning to droop and suddenly look terribly unhealthy! They have become very soft and rubbery and there appears to be a whitish fungus. HELP! I dont know whats happened or how to treat the problem...



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