Eye Candy for a Gardner – The Desert Rose

By Jan Brick, Certified Master Gardener

There are many plants that generate smiles and a sense of pleasure to a gardener. Among the plethora of plants that seem to appeal most to my senses lays the Desert Rose. Although, I have found that it is not always readily available, the Desert Rose is definitely worth seeking out and experimenting with in your garden collection.
The Desert Rose “odenium obesum” grows naturally in the tropical regions of Africa and Asia like Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania and Uganda. They are especially popular in China, Taiwan and Thailand where many hybrids have been cultivated and produced for sale and export.

A succulent bush with thick, fleshy branches, it thrives in humid climates with ample rainfall. The Desert Rose has a distinctive stem that swells to a large size as it stores water; the word “obesum” refers to the sizeable base that looks similar to the bottom of a ponytail palm. The leaves are a glossy green and semi-deciduous and the numerous pink and white flowers that resemble small mandevilla blossoms are enchanting. Flowering is best during the spring and fall months, but can occur any month of the year.
Desert Rose is commonly grown as a house plant and should be a popular choice for people who ‘kill everything’ if only for the remarkable claim that it can indeed thrive with little care and actually can tolerate some degree of neglect. It may lose most or all of its leaves if not watered for a period of time but will more often than not re-grow when watered on a regular schedule. However, it cannot survive in standing water so well draining soil is a must. Growth will be much faster and flowers more prolific with the use of a well-balanced time-released fertilizer like 14-14-14.
Common enemies of the Desert Rose are aphids, caterpillars, scale and fungus. If you monitor and inspect your Desert Rose often you will see any pests and can take immediate action. Caterpillars may defoliate your plant but its leaves will re-grow. Actually, bugs are quite easily controlled; fungus on the other hand is serious and often deadly.
Fungus root rot usually afflicts a small area of the stem and gradually spreads to cover a larger portion. Warning signs include fleshy or tender areas on the stem of the plant. Remove these areas as soon as possible as they can cause the plant to die if allowed to spread. The wound caused by the removal of the infected portions will heal after several weeks and growth will continue as normal. NOTE: The entire stem will become slightly soft if the plant requires water; do not confuse this condition with potential root rot. Fungus root rot is caused mainly from over watering and placing the plant too deeply in the potting medium. Desert Roses don’t need deep soil and prefer to be potted in a loose mix; set only the roots into the soil leaving the trunk itself setting on top of the soil.
Although the Desert Rose is categorized as an uncomplicated and undemanding plant to grow, some advice to remember when working with the Desert Rose may be “better care equals more flowers, more often.”

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