Flies are not popular. Their propensity to land equally on your food and dead animals, or other less desirable objects, has given them the not unfair reputation for carrying germs. But for the Carrion Flower, Orbea variegata, attracting flies is exactly what it sets out to do. The large flat open flowers produce a strong and offensively foetid smell that deceives flies into thinking that there may be some dead meat around worth investigating. The flies move from flower to flower in the hope that there will be somewhere to lay their eggs, but do little more than successfully transfer the pollen from one plant to the next.
With such an odd means of pollinating itself, it is maybe not surprising to find that the plant of Orbea variegata is rather unusual itself. It is a succulent, with thick swollen stems. The leaves have been lost completely, just leaving small toothed protrusions along the stem where they should have been. The stems rarely grow more than a few centimetres high but form a dense block of short stubby fingers close to the ground. The colour of these succulent stems varies, depending upon the amount of sunlight and soil type, from a light grey with brown flecks to a purplish brown. The plants are easily overlooked as these dull colours are often the same as the surrounding rocks. Despite their size, up to 8cm across, the similarly coloured flowers are no more noticeable than the stems. But once spotted, they are exquisite in their detail. The outer petals are thick and rough to the touch, marked with deep purple flecks on a pale yellowish grey background. The central raised ring is paler in colour with the elaborate structure of the gynostegium (fused stamens and styles) in the middle. Successful pollination of the flower leads to the development of the seedpods and once again, these are quite remarkable. The two parts of the ovary grow rapidly and produce narrow spindle-shaped pods that are about 12cm long. These follicles, as they are known, stand erect but diverging in a giant “V”. They are coloured just like the stems and often not seen until they split to reveal their seeds with numerous white hairs that help them to disperse with the wind.
Considering how unusual the flowers of Orbea variegata are, it is not surprising to find that it was one of the first plants recorded from the Cape. Justus Heurnius was a missionary who stopped at the Cape on his way to Indonesia in 1624. During his short stay he produced a few sketches and descriptions of some of the plants he found on the foothills of Table Mountain. Ten of these were published in 1644 by van Stapel (Theophrastii Eresii de Historia Plantarum), the first book illustrating plants from the Cape, and included Orbea variegata. Unfortunately, there was clearly a mix up during the intervening 20 years, as Orbea variegata was described as scentless, while the poor old red-hot poker, Kniphofia uvaria, illustrated beside it, was described as having flowers with a fetid odour. This scurrilous and wrongful attribution stayed with Kniphofia for another 100 years!
Orbea variegata is a widespread species but restricted to the Cape Floristic Region, from near Lambert’s Bay in the north, down to the Cape Peninsula and east as far as Humansdorp. It is mainly found on the coastal plains, but there are some records from the more arid regions inland. It enjoys gravelly slopes, often in full sun, but can grow in the shade of bushes. It is an easy plant to grow, popular amongst succulent collectors. Cuttings root quickly. Drainage is the most important aspect, as it will rot if the stems sit in water for too long.