This group of highly succulent, more or less leafless plants belongs to the family Apocynaceae. Found exclusively in the Old World, they are widely distributed over the drier parts from the Southern-most tip of Africa to the southern shores of Europe and eastwards to Arabia, India and Myanmar. Of the roughly 330 known species, 182 occur in Southern Africa, and all but a handful of these are endemic to this region.
Asclepiadaceae is a plant family which differs from others by having a very complex sexual apparatus and a complicated pollination procedure. They are easyly recognisable by five-lobed flowers. The lobes are joined together at the base of flower (corolla).
There are about 2000 species of Asclepiadaceae split into some 300 genera, of which about half are succulent. The succulent ones are of interest, especially the group named stapeliads. Their flowers are miraculous. I have read somewhere: “Orchids of the Succulent world”/ The flowers of stapeliads have one flaw only. Most of them don’t have a pleasant smell.
Asclepiads grow worldwide, from jungles of Indonesia to deserts and steppes of Africa while stapeliads grow only in the old world. There are some representatives in Europe, too, in Southern Italy and Spain. Most of them are from dry regions of South, East and North Africa, Arabian peninsula and some even from India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma) and Nepal.
Most Asclepiads enjoy warm conditions, and appreciate regular application of water in hot Summer weather providing that the plants are in their growth phase. For some of the more difficult Asclepiads, heat is a requirement and watering should be more circumspect. At Soekershof Walkabout we always use rain water, and tend to water over the top of most plants – after all that is how it happens in habitat. However, many growers prefer to water plants from the bottom (simulating drier conditions where the roots seek underground moisture), and a careful approach to watering is essential for difficult or rare plants. It is a good idea to allow the soil to dry out between waterings, and if the weather goes cold in the middle of the summer, then stop watering. Much of the reputation that Asclepiads have for rotting unexpectedly is probably related to watering plants too early in the year while still dormant, or when the weather is uncertain, or to attack by other pests such as root mealy bug, the damage from which allows disease into the tissues. Indoors Asclepiads seem to do best in very free-draining gritty compost which helps the compost to dry out between watering. Peat-based composts, with lots of sharp sand and fine grit works well, but peat also encourages root-mealy bug.Always remove dead plant material (dead flowers, leaves, stems) from your growing space, as otherwise in damp weather it will become colonised by fungi and rapidly become a source of spores, which may in turn infect your asclepiads.
If a plant that was growing well suddenly goes into a decline, suspect root-mealy bug. This pest destroys the roots, preventing proper uptake of water, so the plant looks under-watered even though it is sitting on soggy compost. Probably the damage also helps fungi to enter the tissues, and the next stage is a rotten plant.
Ordinary mealy bugs are also a major problem with Asclepiads, and are difficult to eliminate from crevices between the stems. Mealy bugs can be spread through a collection by the wandering vegetative growth of tuber-forming Ceropegias. Scale insects are said to be a major pest of Asclepiads in some climates.It is a good idea to take cuttings from suspect plants that are not thriving, clean off obvious infestation and start off some new plants in case the original can not be saved.
Here we replant most of the asclepiads (especially Stapelia-species) every one of two years on a new location. This also prevents rot caused by soil related fungi, etc.
Many Asclepiads are readily grown from seed, and some people grow plants of the faster growing species to flowering size from seed each year, thus avoiding problems of overwintering. However, the seed of many species (e.g. Stapelia sp.) has a limited life expectancy, and should be sown fresh. Those species with fleshy stems are easily propagated from portions of the plant laid flat on a gritty potting mixture, when they will produce roots from the underside of the stems. Planting stem cuttings vertically seems generally less successful (an exception is the vine-like Ceropegia species e.g. C. radicans), and the portion of plant embedded in the compost is prone to rot rather than root. Tuber-forming Cereopegias can be propagated from small tubers formed at joints in the thin stems. Regular propagation of plants with a few cuttings seems to be the best insurance against loss of the main plant.