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Want to add a unique flowering succulent to your collection? The starfish plant or Orbea variegata should definitely have a spot in your garden or sunny window!
This stinky plant produces an exotic star shaped flower that attracts flies when it blooms. Don’t worry; the smell is part of its charm and only comes with the flowers. Otherwise, it’s an unassuming stem succulent that resembles a cactus.
Orbea variegata is a low-maintenance plant that doesn’t need much to grow quickly and produce its striking flowers. This Orbea variegata care guide covers everything you need to know for success, including where to find a starfish cactus for sale to see the beautiful carrion flowers for yourself.
- Orbea Variegata Overview
- Orbea Variegata Flower – The Recognizable Star Shaped Flower
- General Orbea Variegata Care
- Repotting a Starfish Plant
- How to Propagate a Starfish Cactus
- Orbea Variegata Pests & Diseases
- Where to Buy Starfish Cactus
Orbea Variegata Overview
- Scientific name: Orbea variegata
- Common names: Starfish plant, Starfish cactus, starfish succulent, toad cactus, carrion cactus, carrion flower
- Synonym: Stapelia variegata (former name)
- Classification: Apocynaceae → Asclepiadoideae → Ceropegieae → Orbea
- Origin: Western Cape, South Africa
Formerly Stapelia variegata, Orbea variegata is better known as the starfish plant, starfish succulent, or starfish cactus. While it resembles a cactus, the Orbea plant is not related to cacti which belong to the Cactaceae family.
Orbea variegata is a clumping succulent that tends to form mats with stems that grow erect or horizontal. The Orbea plant grows four-angled toothed stems that are bright to greyish green but develop a mottled red to purple hue when grown in full sun.
Orbea variegata is a low-lying succulent that forms clumps or mats. Stems are about half an inch (1-2 cm) thick and grow up to 4-10 inches (10-25 cm) long. It can spread up to 20 inches (50 cm) in diameter.
Orbea variegata carrion flowers bloom in late summer to fall.
A mature starfish plant will bloom successively during late summer to early fall. You can expect a young Orbea variegata to flower when it’s two years old with just one or two carrion flowers. An older plant can produce even more flowers.
The star flower will last about 2-3 days but may last up to a week if you take the plant out of direct sunlight once it blooms.
The starfish plant’s recognizable starfish flower smells like rancid or rotting meat.
The key to getting your carrion plant to flower is making sure it has a dormant period to rest with very little to no water followed by with plenty of sun and fertilizer during the growing period. Orbea variegata flowers more readily in full sun than partial shade!
Orbea Variegata Flower – The Recognizable Star Shaped Flower
What makes Orbea variegata so interesting and fun to grow is its unique flower that looks like a star but smells like rotting meat. The carrion flower attracts flies as pollinators by deceiving them into believing the flower is carrion – a meal and a place to lay eggs.
The starfish flower is very recognizable: its flowers that look like a star or starfish have a cream color with purple or maroon splotches. The five petals surround a starred centered. The star shaped cactus flower is 2-3 inches (2-7 cm) in diameter.
General Orbea Variegata Care
Star flower succulents are easy to care for and don’t need much attention. In fact, too much attention (namely, water) is the most common reason for failure and root rot.
Proper starfish plant care requires mimicking the plant’s natural habitat as much as possible. It’s native to the Western Cape of South Africa which has a Mediterranean climate:
- Warm, dry summers with average temperatures of 64°F to 79°F and 0.5” to 2” of monthly rainfall
- Mild, wet winters with average temperatures of 50°F to 62°F and 1.5” to 3.5” of monthly rainfall
Orbea variegata has even become an invasive species in southern Australia thanks to its similar Mediterranean climate. O. variegata has no trouble withstanding occasional summertime temperatures exceeding 104°F (40°C). Since escaping cultivation, the plant has been found growing in multiple regions of the country and its sale and movement is now prohibited.
Along with temperature and water, the other key to success when growing a carrion flower is getting the soil right. The Orbea plant naturally grows in arid to semi-arid regions with sandy, fast-draining soil.
Orbea Plant Hardiness
- USDA hardiness zones: 9a – 11b
- Lowest tolerable temperature: 50°F (10.2°C)
- Maximum tolerable temperature: up to 100+°F (40°C)
- Ideal temperature range: 60-85°F (15.5-29.4°C)
Like other Stapelias, Orbea variegata does not tolerate cold temperatures but does just fine with higher temperatures.
It’s only winter-hardy in USDA zones 9a to 11b.
While it can tolerate mild, brief frost, it can’t handle extended chilly temperatures.
In its native environment in the Western Cape, it experiences average winter temperatures of 50°F to 62°F (10.2-16.6°) and average summer temperatures of 64°F to 79°F (17.6°-26.1°C). An Orbea plant acclimated to these temperatures will be fine and can tolerate even lower temperatures in the 40s.
To be on the safe side, don’t expose your African starfish plant to temperatures below 50°F (10.2°C). The ideal temperature range is 60-85°F (15.5-29.4°C).
Starfish Succulent Soil Requirements
- Well-draining, sandy loam soil
As a succulent, well-draining soil is essential for a starfish plant to thrive. It naturally grows on stony slopes, rock ledges, and outcrops of sand, shale, and granite. A soil pH of 7.5 to 8.5 (mildly alkaline) is ideal.
To mimic this natural environment and prevent your starfish cactus from developing root rot, use well-draining sandy loam soil. The soil should be gritty with enough organic material to provide nutrients and retain some moisture but enough sand and grit that water isn’t retained for long.
Here’s an easy DIY cactus and succulent soil mix from horticulturist Lyn Kimberly:
- 1 part loam-based soil (high in loam and low in peat)
- 1 part grit (or pumice)
- 1 part horticultural sand
Most cactus and succulent potting mixes are actually inappropriate for succulents because they have too much organic material, retain water far too long, and may be too heavy in peat moss. You can use a commercial cactus and succulent soil mix but make sure you amend it with equal parts horticultural sand and grit.
Making your own succulent soil is easy and it’s much cheaper. A proper pre-mixed blend with grit and sand is very expensive for a small quantity. You won’t spend too much to get many gallons of succulent soil when you make it yourself.
Below you’ll find some basic recommendations. You can also buy poultry grit at a farm supply store like Tractor Supply. You will probably find potting soil cheaper in store, but make sure you choose a lightweight soil. Ideally, look for something without added perlite that’s low in peat. Avoid a soil with added vermiculite.
Starfish Flower Light Needs
- Light shade to full sun
The star flower cactus does well in partial shade to full sun and it’s capable of handling high temperatures. The Orbea plant loves as much light as possible as long as it’s protected from too much intense, direct sunlight. The starfish succulent prefers bright morning or late afternoon sun. On the hottest summer days, it will benefit from some shade from noon to the afternoon. If you live in a climate with harsh afternoon light, choose a spot that only receives bright morning sun.
Aim for 6 hours of bright, direct or indirect light per day.
Grown indoors, Orbea variegata needs bright, indirect light. My young Orbea variegata is growing well about 7” under these T5 grow lights on the top shelf of my Lovecraft & Death IKEA greenhouse. I leave the lights on for 12 hours a day.
How Often Should You Water a Starfish Cactus?
- Allow soil to dry completely between waterings
- Almost no water during the dormant period
Along with well-draining soil, the right amount of water is critical to ensuring your succulent’s health. Orbea variegata isn’t as sensitive to overwatering as some Stapelia plants, but overwatering is the easiest way to kill your starfish plant.
Water sparingly, making sure the soil dries out completely between waterings.
During the active growing season, usually April to August, add diluted fertilizer or slow-release fertilizer once a month.
The Orbea plant becomes dormant in the winter after flowering and requires even less water. The plant should be kept almost dry during the winter with very infrequent waterings only when needed to prevent shriveling. Only water lightly when you see the stems starting to shrivel in the winter. This rest period is important because without it, the plant may never flower.
After a rest period, you can take your Orbea variegata out of dormancy by moving it to a brighter location and increasing water. Regular watering can resume when you see new growth developing.
Repotting a Starfish Plant
Repotting Orbea plants can be tricky as the starfish cactus has a wide root structure and tends to form mats rather than growing upright. Your plant also prefers a pot that seems undersized. You can transplant your Orbea variegata every 2 to 3 years or simply take cuttings and start new plants instead.
Make sure you plant your starfish cactus in a wide, low pot with drainage holes. Terra cotta is recommended because it helps with drainage and allows oxygen to better reach the roots.
How to Propagate a Starfish Cactus
Have a star flower succulent getting too large for its pot? Want to split up your succulent? The star flower cactus is very easy to propagate!
Most people propagate the star plant succulent through cuttings. The best time to take cuttings is during the plant’s active growth phase before it enters its rest period. Ideally, take cuttings just as it finishes flowering. After the flowering phase, you can cut as many healthy stem sections as you like. The easiest way to take cuttings is with a sharp, sterile knife.
Allow cuttings to dry for a day or two in a cool, shaded area until they form a callous. You can then stick the cuttings in a well-draining soil mix and water moderately. Alternately, you can root cuttings in pure sand or perlite to reduce the risk of fungal infection or rot. They should develop roots very quickly, often in less than a week or two.
You can also propagate a starfish plant by seed, whether you buy seeds or use your own if the starfish flower is fertilized. Once a star cactus flower is fertilized by flies, seeds will develop in bellows.
Seeds germinate better while they are fresh. The seedlings grow quickly and the plant will mature and be able to flower after three years. You may be surprised by your new starfish cactus grown from seeds, especially if you have other stapeliad plants – hybridization is very common between Orbea plants and other carrion plant genera!
Orbea Variegata Pests & Diseases
The starfish cactus isn’t affected by many pests and diseases, but there are a few to watch out for.
Mealybugs are the most common succulent pests recognizable as tiny specks of white fuzz on the stems or spines. At the beginning of a mealybug infestation, you will only spot one or two of the bugs, but they multiply rapidly and spread to other plants. A single female mealybug can lay up to 600 eggs. Mealybugs damage succulents and this damage also encourages fungal growth. A large enough infestation can be fatal to your Orbea variegata.
Act quickly when you spot them! You can kill mealybugs easily by spraying or dabbing them with 70% isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol). It won’t damage your plant. To be on the safe side, spray your entire plant with a mix of 1 cup rubbing alcohol, 1 quart (32 ounces) water, and a few drops of Dawn dish soap. Be sure to spray in all the nooks and crannies and treat the soil too.
Root mealybugs can also be a problem with succulents like the starfish plant. Root or soil mealybugs aren’t visible aboveground; the only sign may be an eventual decline in your plant’s health or ants attracted to your plant. When you inspect the roots, you’ll find these tiny insects feeding on the roots.
To kill root mealybugs, remove the plant from the pot and remove as much soil from the roots as you can. Soak the roots in hot water of 115° to 120° for 10 minutes than 70° water for another 10 minutes. Sterilize the pot by cleaning it with hot water and soap, then repot your starfish cactus with fresh soil mixed with diatomaceous earth.
Mealybugs and root mealybugs are both susceptible to many systemic insecticides like imidacloprid. You can also treat infestations with insecticidal soap or Neem oil. You can use Neem oil to drench the plant and soil, but only in the evening to prevent burns from sunlight.
I personally like having Neem oil and rubbing alcohol on hand. Neem oil was the most effective thing I found for stopping an aphid infestation on my buzz button plants. I keep rubbing alcohol in a small spray bottle to kill the odd mealybug that shows up before they become a problem.
Root Rot – The Biggest Threat to Starfish Plants
Root rot is the most likely issue you will experience growing Orbea variegata. Root rot is usually the result of too much water and poor draining soil, although it can also be caused by fungal or bacterial infestations. A large mealybug infestation, for example, can make a succulent very vulnerable to fungal infestation that causes root rot.
Yellowing, limp stems and leaves are the most common indicators your succulent has root rot. The soil may smell like mildew or your plant may develop an odor like rot. It will start to cave in on itself and the plant tissue will become mushy and collapse.
If caught early, root rot may be reversed with difficulty by removing the plant from the soil, cleaning the roots, and letting them dry before repotting in dry soil. Once a plant becomes mushy, it can’t be fixed. Once rot spreads into a stem, however, it’s unlikely it can be saved.
Where to Buy Starfish Cactus
You might have enormous luck with a local plant nursery or a friend, but you’ll probably need to turn to the internet to find an Orbea starfish cactus for sale.
I got my Orbea variegata from Etsy seller LilLucysTreasureBox. Their shop has many other carrion flowers too!
You can try a handful of Facebook groups for selling or trading succulent cuttings and live plants. You can also find starfish cactus for sale on Amazon. Etsy is where to buy starfish cactus for the greatest variety – there are sellers offering not only Orbea variegata and other Orbea species but dozens of Huernia, Tavaresia, and Stapelia varieties to start your own collection of fun flowers that smell like death.