photographs by Bruce Brethauer
The flowers of the Ceropegias are, in my opinion, amongst the most bizarre and highly specialized of any in the plant kingdom. The flowers are characterized by very long floral tubes, ending in a markedly bulbous base, intricately folded petals which are frequently united at the tips to produce a distinctive bird cage, or egg beater shaped flower (as in C. linearis v woodii, or C. bosserii). The petals and interior of the floral tube is often lined with backward pointing pointing hairs, and many species produce distinctive scents. All of these adaptations insure that only very specific insects are attracted to the flowers, and only these can actually penetrate into the deep interiors of the flowers where pollination will actually occur. Unlike the flowers of many plants, the flowers of the Ceropegias do not offer the pollinators any rewards - the flowers are not known to produce significant (if any) nectar, and the pollen is concentrated into compact pollinia, and is seldom (if ever) consumed by the pollinators. As a rule, only a few species of insects can successfully pollinate the flowers of any given species of Ceropegia - the scents produced by the flowers, flower colors, and other visual cues will only attract a fairly specific group of insects, and the shape and size of the flowers will screen out all insects which are not of the proper size - I would not be surprised to discover that some plants may only be pollinated by a single species of insect in habitat.
The Ceropegias are a members of the milkweed family: Approximately 200 species of Ceropegia are recognized, virtually all are native to tropical and sub tropical regions of the old world, with a majority of species originating from southern Africa and Madagascar. Most species are vining perennials, with a good number of succulent species - many produce tuberous roots, while some are stem, and occasionally, leaf succulents; a few species are shrubby perennials.
Ceropegia cimiciodora is native to South Africa: the stems are dimorphic - producing thick, very succulent scrambling stems during its vegetative phase; these stems are cryptically colored, and may grow to several feet in length. Minute, ephemeral leaves are produced on widely spaced nodes on the stems. As the flowering season approaches, the stems transition into extremely long, thin, twining stems which produce multiple racemes of flower buds during its flowering phase. Stem growth at this time can be remarkably rapid - my plant produced a vining stem in excess of 6 feet in a period of about 4 months.
The flowers are somewhat atypical for the Ceropegias, with spreading petals instead of petals which are united at their tips, but exhibit other traits which are typical of the Ceropegias. The flowers are comparatively large, with floral tubes in excess of 2 inches, and petals spreading to about 1.5 inches across. The inside petal surfaces are covered with fine purple to magenta hairs. The flower colors are variable in this species: on my plant, the inside petals are a greenish beige with minute purplish spots, the floral tube and outside petals are beige with purplish splotches, but in the photographs of other plants, the flowers may also be chartreuse. This species was named for the unusual scent emitted by the flowers - "cimiciodora" translates "smelling like a bed bug". I am able to say that the flowers do in fact emit a scent reminiscent of a crushed bedbug (please do not ask me how I would know), however, this scent is not especially strong, and I have only detected it on a few occasions on my plant. The scent appears to be emitted only at certain times of the day, and temperature and light intensity may also play a factor on when or even if this plant will produce a noticeable scent on any given day. I wasn't sure what sort of insect would be attracted to the flowers of this plant - I can report that I have never seen any bedbugs on this plant, and none of the literature has cited any evidence that this plant can attract these pests. While taking a close-up of one of flowers, I noticed some activity deep in the floral tube, and eventually captured this image of a gnat sized fly that was attracted into the flower. This fly showed no difficulty in negotiating its way into the deep interior of the flower, and back again, (some authorities suggest that some insects may become trapped inside of Ceropegia flowers for hours and even days). I was hopeful that this fly (and several others which I observed) would have succeeded in pollinating the flowers of this plant, but no fruits ever resulted.
This plant is easy to grow: It responds well to my general guidelines on growing cacti and other succulents, with a few considerations. This plant needs full sun to thrive, and should be grown outdoors whenever temperatures permit to benefit from exposure to direct sunlight and higher growing temperatures. Flowering seems to be initiated by changes in the daylength; flower buds begin to appear in late summer, and flowers are produced from late summer through fall. Without a significant change in day length, this plant may never produce flowers - which may be important information if you intend to grow plants under artificial lights. While this plant will take very cool temperatures, and will survive brief exposure to nearly freezing temperatures, I do not believe that it will survive even brief exposure to freezing conditions. Extended cold conditions will probably weaken this plant, even during its winter dormancy, I would recommend maintaining somewhat warmer conditions in winter; above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Plants are easily propagated from cuttings taken while the plant is actively growing - it can probably be propagated by some variation of air layering. To date, I have not seen any seed production on any of the plants which I have observed, so I cannot report on how easy it is to grow this plant from seed.
This plant is not for most growers, the plant itself is not particularly attractive; the stems are typically scrambling, and will spread some distance from its pot. Grown in a hanging basket, the succulent stems will hang to a length of several feet. During its flowering phase, the twining stems will grow upright many feet, and will insinuate themselves through anything that will provide any support. While some people will appreciate the curious flowers of this plant, those persons who prefer flowers with more classical beauty, and more flamboyant colors will probably be unimpressed with these. This a great plant however for those growers who seek out the great oddities of the plant kingdom, and who can appreciate this plant for its curious traits - I'm sure that it will have an appeal to those growers who's tastes are on the gothic side (imagine the Adams Family), for everyone else, it may be best to appreciate this plant vicariously through photos.
While it is never common in the trade, several mail order nurseries frequently offer plants or cuttings of this species. I have seen it offered through the following nurseries:
Bob Smoleys Gardenworld