Southwest Regional Reports

Desert Rose for the Southwest

This unusual succulent will be an instant conversation starter in your summer garden

Desert rose blooms
Desert rose blooms with stunning, hot pink, hibiscus-like flowers all through the warmer months of the year. Photo: Bernard Spragg

Desert rose (Adenium obesum, Zones 10b–12) is a slow-growing succulent that delivers beautifully deep pink blooms throughout the summer in the Southwest. You can now find hybrids that have orange, red, and striped flowers, but pink is still the most common color of blooms that you’ll find available. This plant, also known as sabi star and mock azalea, originates from Africa, Madagascar, and the Middle East, which is why it thrives in warm desert climates. If you live below Zone 10b, you’ll have to bring it indoors for the winter. While this may be a houseplant for most of us during the winter, it’s extremely common in the Southwest and thrives outdoors in the summer.

Beware of overwatering and sunburn

Caring for your desert rose can be a bit tricky at first. Knowing how much water it needs and when will make or break your success. Since it’s a succulent, it does OK with some dry spells, but overwatering will cause it to rot. However, its native deserts have rainy periods that prompt its growth spurts. As a result, you should water it regularly in the spring and summer, although you will still want the soil to dry out between waterings. It loves warmth and sunlight, but the leaves can scorch in the summer heat, so finding it some midday shade will prove very beneficial. Its soil quality is also very important to its health. It needs well-draining cactus soil mixed with some lava rock or sand to avoid root rot.

Adenium obesum
Certain cultivars bloom with orange or red flowers. Photo: Laurel Startzel

Fertilize at the right time, and beware of bugs

Fertilize your desert rose during its growing period (spring and summer) with a half dose of a 20-20-20 plant food, but be sure to stop the fertilization during the winter when it goes dormant. While caring for your plant, keep an eye out for mealy bugs, spider mites, and scale. If you see any of these pests, I recommend using a cotton swab soaked in alcohol to address the problem areas. If necessary, spray your entire plant with alcohol to clear out the pests. Use a ratio of 1 part alcohol and 7 parts water when spraying to kill all pests while avoiding drying out the plant.

Guard yourself, your kids, and your pets against sap

Desert rose, although stunning, can be extremely toxic to both humans and pets. The plant produces a milky sap that contains lethal toxins. I highly recommended wearing gloves when handling your desert rose. If you have curious pets, please keep the plants out of reach. To give you an idea of the caution you need to take when growing this plant, the sap contains cardiac glycosides—which is used to create poison arrows in Africa for large game hunting, .

deser rose trunks, caudices
Desert rose plants grown from seed develop large, swollen trunks called caudices that grow larger and rounder as plants age. Propagated plants may be missing this distinctive feature. Photo: Laurel Startzel

Propagation yields mixed results

Although I’ve never tried propagating a desert rose, it is possible. You can use branch cuttings to propagate this plant, although what you may find is that the new plants will not produce a caudex, which is the large swollen trunk this plant is known for. The propagated stems tend to be skinnier and less characteristic of a typical desert rose.

Desert rose is truly a gorgeous plant that will inevitably be a conversation piece within your garden or home. It has been said to resemble a bonsai with its unique, swollen trunk and crownlike flower structure. Whether in bloom or not, desert rose offers extraordinary visual interest. You will not be disappointed by adding this succulent to your garden.

—Sheila Schultz and Laurel Startzel are a mother-daughter duo who founded Denver Dirty Girls Container Gardening while living in Denver and have continued their business since moving to Tucson, Arizona.

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