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Annie in Austin
Welcome! As "Annie in Austin" I blog about gardening in Austin, TX with occasional looks back at our former gardens in Illinois. My husband Philo & I also make videos - some use garden images as background for my original songs, some capture Austin events & sometimes we share videos of birds in our garden. Come talk about gardens, movies, music, genealogy and Austin at the Transplantable Rose and listen to my original songs on YouTube. For an overview read Three Gardens, Twenty Years. Unless noted, these words and photos are my copyrighted work.
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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sometimes the Gift Outlives the Giver

I thought about my Aunt Phyl a few days ago. At the beginning of November the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos and the Feast of All Souls remind us of family members who have died and my aunt has been gone for many years. Remembering her now might be appropriate but the calender didn't bring her to mind - it was an unexpected bud on a plant.

Phyl loved clothes, parties, plays and gourmet cooking, but she was also a gardener. I can remember being a child in her flower border, watching as my aunt showed me how to squeeze the sides of the blossom to make Snapdragons talk. A few decades later, when impatiens was a newish, trendy annual, she showed me how to snap off a few flowering stems and arrange them on needlepin holders for a sunny table, telling me that way they'd look good while growing roots to make more plants for the garden. She handed out divisions of Siberian iris and Annabelle Hydrangea and Jack-n-the-Pulpit - all still growing in the gardens of my family back in Illinois.

Aunt Phyl gave me starter plants of another passalong back in the late 1980's. It grew as a houseplant in Illinois but has been a porch plant since I brought it to Texas. Here's that bud unfolded:

Its names are Starfish flower, Carrion flower, and Stapelia - possibly Stapelia gigantea. The thick stems look almost like a cactus but are relatively soft and have no spines.

I brought one plant with me and have started several more in the last 8 years. I lost a few to sudden cold snaps - this plant is happy outside in mild weather but the pots must be taken in and out of the garage when the temperatures approach freezing. This was the first flower in a couple of years - strange and spectacular, with long hairs all over the edges, and they emit a faint scent of meat to attract a pollinator - flies!

Once the flies showed up I realized that white shelf was a little too close to the door and the floral display moved down to the other end of the veranda.

It seems ironic that such an odd plant brings memories of my rather glamorous, well-groomed aunt - but it's the only passalong from her that made it to Texas. Maybe she'd be amused.


  1. How nice to have a living reminder of your aunt...and what an fascinating one! I've never seen one before...is it considered a succulent?

  2. Aunt Phyl is probably smiling down on that flower, quite pleased that you still have it. I've never seen one! It's very exotic and mysterious looking.

    I think that's one of the best kind of plant to have, one that came from a family member, a plant with a history and a story.

    Thanks for sharing yours with us!

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

  3. Your thinking about your Aunt brought to mind my dear sweet Aunt. Her specialty in the garden was starting roses with cuttings. I can still see her little sticks in the ground with mason jars over them. Most took under her care.

    I had one of those succulents with the big star shaped blossom some time ago. I remember being ready to go someplace with a friend and I came out of the house to hop in her vehicle to go but couldn't due to seeing this huge blossom. I had to postpone our departure so I could get a photo of it. It lasted a long time too.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. :)

  4. What a unique and fascinating plant!

    I can't walk through my garden without being reminded of the friends who have shared their gardens with me via divisions and cuttings, especially you and Pam/Digging. Your aunt lives on in your memory, and now of ours, through the generosity of her gifts (not just the physical plants but the shared knowledge).

  5. Annie what a weird and wonderful plant that Starfish flower is. And how wonderful that it brought back such fond memories of someone who was clearly very special in your life.

    Was it your aunt Phyl who taught you the joys of gardening?

  6. What an exotic looking flower. Aptly named. Seems perfect for your Austin climate, I wonder how your aunt got a hold of such an unusual succulent in Illinois? A very nice way to remember your aunt.

    We love those little dioramas they sell at the Dia de los Muertos festivals with the tiny skeletal people doing weird things. We first saw one when one of our friends had one showing a woman who had just stabbed her mate lying in bed. An appropos little scene since our friend had divorced her husband who apparently was a filandering bastard and suspected pedophile.

  7. Annie, thanks for sharing the story and the photos (especially the one of your Aunt Phyl!) -- it's terrific! That's a gorgeous and interesting blossom.

  8. I bet your Aunt Phyl left a legacy of cuttings and divisions with many gardeners, though I venture to guess that you were her favorite. MSS is right---gardeners can live on through their plant gifts. And your starfish flower is certainly a unique one.

  9. When you mentioned that one of the passalongs your Aunt gave others was Annabelle Hydrangea, I had to smile. I received my first Annabelle from a dear friend who has moved from Oklahoma to Washington State. She came back to OK for a visit, and she and I had coffee this a.m. Whenever I see any of the plants she gave me, I'm so grateful for our friendship. We must remember to give lots of plants to others so we'll be remembered too.

  10. I suspect that your aunt Phyl would be quite delighted at the way that you've remembered her.

    I frequently recall my grandfather as I go about my gardening chores. Although he died during my college years and long before my gardening gene kicked in, in a strange way because of my gardening I feel more of a connection with him now than when he was alive.

    --Robin (Bumblebee)

  11. I'm sure your Aunt Phyl would be smiling if she could read your post, Annie. Nice memory of her, no matter that a strange and unusual succulent brought it back! I can't picture the needlepin holder? Was it like a little vial?

  12. Congratulations on getting a flower after such a long time. See, if I'd started the Hedge Report (a Drudge Report covering garden bloggers), I'd have the siren up this morning with the headline, ANNIE'S STAPELIA BLOOMS!

    Christopher C. once described this flower's allure as "enticing, fleshy, and carnal". Maybe that does not describe your Aunt Phyl, but I would have to agree it matches this bloom.

  13. Annie, what a wonderful post and tribute to your Aunt Phyl. I'm sure she is delighted! What an unusual plant. I always enjoy seeing your different plants and reading your blog. It is an education for me! I'm rather glad that our gardening season is over here because--I need the rest!

  14. Yes Leslie - it is a succulent - I've seen them for sale in Austin - never knew other people who had them in Illinois.

    I hope that's true, Carol - it does feel like a kind of horticultural trust!

    Hello Lisa - that mason jar trick is something I've read about in Rose Rustling articles. Pretty cool that your Aunt really did it!

    MSS - that's been one of the fun things about meeting other gardeners... we could probably hunt down and buy most of these plants, but the exchanged experiences make the exchanged plants better!

    Hello Yolanda Elizabet- it looks even weirder when you see it in person! Aunt Phyl was one of many gardening people that influenced me as a child. They all seemed to have favorite plants - maybe that will be a winter post.

    Ki, it's originally from Africa, I guess, and it sure couldn't live outside here!
    I was able to grow it in Illinois for more than a decade, and it's not too hard to get a chunk rooted. My guess is that it came to Phyl from one of her garden club friends.

    Good grief - that was some creepy diorama! I've seen lots of papier mache figures in stores here - not tiny, but maybe 1/2 lifesize.

    Genie, you're welcome. I like the idea of sharing her smile with the world.

    Pam/Digging, some of that may just be good timing. Among our large group of cousins I'm second oldest. - by the time the younger ones bought homes my Aunt was too fragile for gardening. It was very sad!

    Hi there, Dee from Oklahoma! I'm glad your friend gets a change to come back and see you. And I like that idea about passing the plants around ;-]

    That's an interesting observation, Robin. When I was writing this it occured to me that if I'd met my Aunt as a neighbor or someone in the Garden Club we might have had a different relationship - one not based on being part of a huge family but just on common love of gardening.

    She had a beautiful smile, LostRoses, so that would be good! As to the needlepin - maybe you use a different term? Its a heavy round piece of metal covered in points- you jam the flower stems into it for arrangements in bowls.

    I remember you talking about that Hedge Report, ChuckB! I looked at this Stapelia in spring and wished it would bloom so I could make a post about my Aunt. I've moved it from porch to patio to shelf for 3 years and finally found a spot it likes.

    "Enticing, fleshy and carnal"?? Only my late Uncle could have answered that question. She was quite a dancer and always well groomed and dressed...in the photo Phyl was in her seventies.

    Thank you, Bev - your parkway garden has been pretty educational for many of us. Sometimes I miss that dormancy part - this garden never goes to sleep.

    Thank you for all the comments,


  15. Wow, I've never seen that plant. Really creepy looking.

  16. Oh, of course, Annie! I was thinking something to do with sewing (duh). I've always called those "flower frogs". Does that sound familiar? I have both metal and glass ones somewhere around here. The glass ones have holes instead of the metal pins.

  17. Most of the plants in my garden are pass-alongs and they make me think of the giver when I'm outside working. A distant cousin has suggested that I start a special genealogy garden with only plants that I've received from other family members or planted in memory of someone. I think your aunt would be pleased that this gift is doing well and evoking her memory.

  18. "when impatiens was a newish, trendy annual, she showed me how to snap off a few flowering stems and arrange them on needlepin holders for a sunny table, telling me that way they'd look good while growing roots to make more plants for the garden. "

    This is wonderful, Annie. Maybe some day you'll recreate this and take a photo of it for all of us to see.

    I used to make hollyhock dollies with blooms and hat pins but this is different -- rooting and decorating at the same time. Neat-o. Also really interesting to recall when impatiens was the new beauty in town. Your Aunt Phyl sounds dynamite.

  19. Oh! I had one of these (something similar at least), back in Michigan, that I gave to someone before I moved. I forgot about it - and the small seemed to be stronger than a 'faint' scent of meat! I think that she would be amused - she would have to be! Fun.

  20. I vote that she would be amused, too--in fact, I swear I can "see" a twinkle in her eyes, even through those sunglasses. :)

    With its beautiful, exotic colors she would probably be flattered to be remembered by that flower. I would be.

  21. This was a wonderful remembrance - your Aunt Phyl must have been a special person. Having this cool-looking succulent in bloom is a lovely reminder of your aunt. I want one of those - the plants that is. I have lots of aunts!

  22. Annie: That is such a nice way to remember someone and to be remembered!

  23. Annie, your Aunt would be amused, no doubt, but more likely honored by the post. Very nice.

    The starfish bloom is very unique and pretty - too bad it's a fly catcher :o/ That was my first thought, then I realized I'd like to have many of them planted in good locations around my house! Functional beauty!

  24. Annie,

    Very nice story and fantastic plant. I've wanted one of these for a while but the smell makes me reconsider when I come across cuttings. The closest I have is an Orbea variegata that I posted a pic of on my blog. It smelled bad but only when you got close enough. These flowers are fantastic and I think your aunt would be pleased to see it blooming for you.

    Depending on how long she'd had it before you got the pass along it is possible she was one of handful of people to own one of these in IL. Even today they're not exactly easy to come buy in stores.

  25. Dontcha just love it when that happens?? I see my garden mentor, Aunt Doris, with everyone of her plants that bloom. Who can ask for a better memorial than that? Not me! I just love that Starfish Flower, exotic is right! Have a great week! Chris

  26. I have an idea you might have some of your Aunt Phyl's character traits Annie...she looks like she has a playful personality, and a love of life, like you.
    What an amazing flower! I think it's rather glamorous, like your aunt, although I doubt she drew flies :)
    I love the way passalongs bring memories of the giver.
    Thanks for sharing this story of a sweet gardener.
    Maybe someday a niece of yours will share a similar story :)

  27. That is a very cool plant that Aunt Phyl left you.
    I was going to ask why they call it a carrion flower until you said it smelled like meat and attracted flies.
    Strangely, even though it smells like meat, attracts flies, and looks like a hairy starfish I still want one.
    Thank you Aunt Phyl.
    BTW my oldest son was born on November 2nd-All Souls Day. And I love Day of the Dead art.

  28. Yes, LostRoses- I've heard 'flower frog', too, and have one glass one along with the metal ones.

    Thank you for stopping and commenting, Jonnyspace.

    My old garden was like that, Apple, but too many midwest plants can't grow here. The genealogy garden could be really cool!

    Maybe that post would be an excuse to indulge in impatiens next summer, Julie! I still have one of Aunt Phyl's flower bowls so it could be fun.

    Hi Pam - I seem to remember the smell being stronger in Illinois but not here... maybe something with humidity? Or maybe the flies appeared so fast the flower didn't bother to use energy to produce the odor?

    She had a fine sense of humor, Blackswamp Kim - one Halloween instead of formal costumes, she and my uncle swapped clothes and personalities for the evening!

    Thank you, Kate - she sure was. I started out with lots of Aunts - losing them stinks!

    Thank you, Layanee, I think she would like the idea.

    Being a fly attractant was only a problem when it was by the door, Mary - too bad it isn't a fly destroyer!

    I'm glad you liked it Digital Flower Pictures.

    Hi MrBrownThumb, I went to your blog and saw the Orbea variegata - somehow even weirder than this one!
    Who knows what kind of stuff is being passed along in garden clubs - we might be amazed.

    We'll just have to keep passing out plants, Chris so we can make people remember us through plants, too ;-]

    I'd be proud to have someone think my aunt and I share those traits, Kerri! Phyl had pet cats, too - bet you are not surprised at that.

    Don't you mean that you want one because it smells like meat, attracts flies and looks like a hairy starfish?? You're pretty exotic and playful yourself Chigiy! I have a child born on that cusp, too - they may make us nuts but we won't get bored.

    Thanks for the comments, both on my behalf and on that of my Aunt!


  29. What a very cool plant. I had a starfish plant (different species) that bloomed on All Soul's Day when I lived in the Bay Area. It lived out on my back porch. It was a gift plant, but unfortunately it did not survive being taken to Bremerton.

    I'm sure your Aunt knows that you still have that plant and enjoys the connection.

  30. I really enjoyed this post, Annie! My mom has that plant, too. I remember it bloomed for her once, but I didn't recall the smell or flies visiting it. I was pleasantly surprised to see you mention making snapdragons "talk"- my grandma taught me that, and I get a kick out of showing it to any kid that's interested. Fun stuff!

  31. Best way to get them to bloom is to water them regularly but don't let it stand in water. I usually get 10-20 blooms off a plant that is about twice the size of yours.

  32. Annie in Austin, just checking in to let you know that my Aunt Phyllis Stapelia is doing well. Today, it has two open blooms, one dried up bloom and one new bloom about ready to pop. It has been a good bloomer for me!

  33. Hi Carol,
    One of my plants made one flower a week ago and I thought that was pretty good until I saw your comment. You seem to have the magic touch!


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