Ceropegia sandersonii Decne. ex Hook.f.
Common names: giant ceropegia, Sanderson’s ceropegia, Sanderson’s canopy flower, parachute flower, trumpet flower, fountain flower (Eng.); sambreelblom (Afr.)
Members of the genus Ceropegia are characterized by tubular flowers, specially adapted for the temporary capture of insects for pollination purposes. The variety of structures and hairs, the colouration and the pollination strategies make this a fascinating group of plants. If you want a plant from this family that flowers easily and frequently, grow well in a well-lit living room and has special and remarkable flowers, you have to try and grow Ceropegia sandersonii. Further advantages are that it is easy to grow, have a relatively long flowering period, is an evergreen plant (only drops its leaves during very harsh winters) and requires little water. The giant ceropegia probably has the largest flower in the genus and is justly prized for its striking blooms.
Figure 1. Ceropegia sandersonii. note the twining, climbing growth form. (Photo Martin Heigan)
A perennial succulent vine that climbs through shrubs and trees where it grows with 1–4 m long stems, that are about 5 mm thick. The stems are produced from a cluster of fleshy, cylindrical, white roots. The simple fleshy leaves are borne in pairs along the slightly warty stem, and are ovate-lanceolate to cordate-ovate (heart-shaped), with a cordate base, 16–50 mm long and 12–25 mm broad. The petiole is stout and ± 6 mm long.
Figure 2. Opposite leaves of Ceropegia sandersonii. A, cordate-ovate (heart-shaped). B, ovate-lanceolate. (Photos S.P. Bester)
Two to 4 flowers are produced in cymes and these develop in succession, one after the other. The flower stalks are ± 10 mm long; the corolla is tubular, pallid green with darker vertical stripes and the top of the canopy spotted green or purplish maroon on a green background. The corolla is 40–70(–80) mm long and 25–50 mm across at the top; the tube 38–50 mm long.
Figure 3. Corolla of Ceropegia sandersonii. A, apical portion of tube broadening in a funnel-shape with the lobes above forming openings called windows (indicated with arrows). B, fused canopy segments viewed from above showing spotted markings. C, glands on inside of canopy secreting pheromones attracting the pollinators. (Photos S.P. Bester)
The base that contains the gynostegium and corona is only slightly swollen or ovoid and at the top the corolla lobes are campanulate and expand with the 5 lobes that converge to form an umbrella-like canopy, fringed with silky white to purple hairs. The openings between the segments are also referred to as windows, hence the common name windowed flowers.
Figure 4. Segment or parts of canopy of corolla of Ceropegia sandersonii. A, one segment viewed from above and B, viewed from side, both showing white vibratile hairs on the margin. C, side-view of apical portion of tube showing the window formed by the fused segments. (Photos S.P. Bester)
The flowers are faintly scented, said to be lightly citrus- or lime-scented, but the author could not discern any distinct fragrance. The corona lobes consist of 2 series: the interstaminal lobes are dorso-ventrally flattened and fused into a cup-shaped structure ± 1 mm tall, surrounding the gynostegial column and the staminal lobes that are fused basally to the interstaminal corona but free above, erect, linear-filiform and ± 3 mm tall, connivent in the upper part but with tips curved.
Figure 5. Base of floral tube of Ceropegia sandersonii. A, external view of basal swelling and calyx. B, C, dissected basal part of tube showing the corona lobes; note also the erect hairs in the tube. (Photos S.P. Bester)
The pollen is aggregated in special structures called pollinia held together by a clip.
Figure 6. Gynostegial column of Ceropegia sandersonii positioned in the basal swelling of the tube showing the pollinia, clip and rail where pollinia from another flower need to be lodged to ensure pollination. (Photo S.P. Bester)
The fruits are usually a paired, ± horizontally spreading follicle, 75–130(–140) mm long and 7–8(–11) mm wide, with a rugose (wrinkled) surface and green to purplish tinged.
Figure 7. Fruit of Ceropegia sandersonii. A, note rugose surface of follicles and two fruit in foreground single and one in background paired. B, C, paired follicles. (Photos A & C by Geoff Nichols; B by S.P. Bester)
This species is a medium grower and long-lived plant. Plants flower in summer and autumn, mainly November to March in the wild, but cultivated the plant may flower all year round.
This species has been assessed as least concerned (Foden & Potter 2005). This taxon was not selected in any one of 4 screening processes for highlighting potential taxa of conservation concern for detailed assessment and was hence given an automated status of Least Concern (LC). The Threatened Species Programme is currently systematically completing full assessments for all taxa with an automated status.
Distribution and habitat
Plants grow in Bushveld savanna or scrub, in areas that are usually frost-free. It has been recorded at altitudes that ranges between 340–1 000 m above sea level. The plants are naturally distributed from the hot southeastern parts of the Mpumalanga lowveld to eSwatini, Zululand and the warmer parts of KwaZulu-Natal, and as far south as Port Shepstone; also as far north as Maputo in Mozambique.
Figure 8. Known distribution of Ceropegia sandersonii based on distribution records at the National Herbarium (PRE).
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The generic name Ceropegia is derived from 2 Greek words, keros meaning ‘wax’ and pege meaning ‘fountain’, which is in reference to the somewhat fleshy flowers with long tubes that usually expand towards their ends. The epithet sandersonii was chosen by Decaisne in his original description to honour John Sanderson (1820–1881) who hailed from Scotland and came to KwaZulu-Natal in 1851. Sanderson was a journalist, but in his free time collected numerous plant specimens which he sent to JD Hooker at Kew (England) and to Harvey at Dublin (Ireland). Decaisne was a friend of Hooker who supplied him some of the original material received from Sanderson in 1868. Hooker drew the plate used in the original description in 1869, when the material flowered a year after it was received from Sanderson. The description was based on that which was made by Decaisne, but Hooker formally published the new species in Curtis’ Botanical Magazine in 1869 (t. 5792). The original material of Sanderson was collected on the banks of the Umgeni River in 1867 in Natal (today KwaZulu-Natal) and became the type for Ceropegia sandersonii.
A regional form in Maputaland, initially known as Ceropegia monteiroae Hook.f., was also described by Hooker in the same volume of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (t. 6927) in 1887 and the material came from Mozambique.
Figure 9. Ceropegia sandersonii. A, B, typical form viewed from different angles showing the canopy from an angle and window (note white vibratile hairs). C, D, the form previously described as C. monteiroa viewed from different angles showing the canopy from an angle and window (note purple vibratile hairs which are actually translucent with a maroon margin in close-up). Photos A & B by Adam Shuttleworth; C & D by S.P. Bester)
The variation in the size of the flowers and in the spread and elevation of the canopy of the corolla, is such, that a form from Mozambique and northern Zululand (KwaZulu-Natal) with pendulous, purple cilia from the canopy, was given recognition at species level. Ceropegia sandersonii and C. monteiroae is so closely related that even the avid asclepiad collector and author, Rudolph Schlechter, confused this form with C. fimbriata. To add to the complications, C. sandersonii apparently hybridizes with such species as C. radicans and C. elegans Wall. (= C. similis N.E.Br.), but according to Dr Dyer, these hybrids are not produced in the wild. In the last revision of the genus in southern Africa, Dyer in 1983, decided to include C. monteiroae in C. sandersonii despite of the northern KwaZulu-Natal and southern Mozambique form that is immediately distinguishable by its smaller canopy and the hanging, maroon vibratile hairs in the sinuses (windows) of the corolla.
The genus Ceropegia in the strict sense consists of about 200 species. Only 3 other species have previously been covered in this series and they are Ceropegia ampliata and C. crassifolia subsp. crassifolia and C. linearis subsp. woodii, more commonly known string-of-hearts. The parachute flower is more closely related to the string-of-hearts (Ceropegia linearis subsp. woodii) which also has heart-shaped fleshy foliage. Ceropegia is a very attractive species with a wide range of morphological forms and colouring and has a wide distribution throughout Africa to India and Asia and popular subjects for collectors of bizarre flowering plants. Other southern African species with attractive flowers and foliage that could also easily be grown, include Ceropegia distincta subsp. haygharthii, C. nilotica, C. radicans subsp. smithii, C. racemosa, C. ampliata and C. cimiciodora.
Flies generally pollinate ceropegias. The special tubular structure of the flowers is specifically adapted to capture the pollinators. On the inside of the tube (especially at the mouth and above the basal inflation), hairs are found, all of them directed downwards. When a pollinator enters the cage and moves down the tube, the stiff hairs make it difficult, if not impossible, to move out again. The insect is thus almost forced to move further down where a very specialized structure containing the pollen mass is housed. In the flower, pollen sacks get attached to the bodies of the pollinators. After 2–4 days, the flowers start to wilt. When this happens, the hairs become lax and the pollinator can leave its temporary prison. Pollination taking place when it enters another flower and depositing the pollen sacks in special rails where the pollen germinate, growing to the ovaries where fertilization take place. These flowers are described as myiophilous (fly-pollinated) pitfall-traps.
Heiduk et al. (2016) described a new pollination strategy in Ceropegia. They discovered that the trap flowers of Ceropegia sandersonii mimic compounds secreted by honeybees in distress. These volatile compounds are supposed to attract other honeybees to help the one(s) in distress, but food-stealing flies (the pollinators of Ceropegia sandersonii and flies of the Milichiidae family) are also lured to the supposed food source. The carnivorous flies are, however, deceived in that they follow the scent to a flower of C. sandersonii instead of the food (honeybee). The flowers are thus a chemical mimic of a food source of adult carnivorous flies. In search of food, the temporarily trapped fly will crawl around inside the flowers and the pollen, which are aggregated into tiny pollen masses, will eventually stick to some part of the fly (usually the proboscis or one of the legs), by means of a specialized ‘clip’. The flowers only last 2–4 days and when it wilts, the hungry fly will crawl out as the hairs in the tube loses its turgor and the fly can escape. Hopefully another flower will be in the vicinity to trick such a hungry fly to visit it in turn and deposit the pollen mass, to ensure successful pollination – usually to the detriment of the fly, as many dead flies are usually observed within the base of the tubes of flowers when dissected. According to Heiduk et al. (2016) Ceropegia sandersonii is one of the first plants to be identified that uses a so-called ‘betrayed thief’ strategy for pollination.
The few follicles that form are evidence of the specialized pollination strategy. Each follicle, however, produces a large amount of seed. The seeds are mainly wind-distributed and are dispersed by floating on the gentlest breeze with their parachute-like tufts of white hairs.
This species, like most ceropegias, are widespread but with low population densities. When not flowering, the plant is very difficult to detect among the surrounding vegetation.
Possible pollinators of Ceropegia are attracted from a distance by the odour or the nectar, sometimes sweet but usually putrid smelling. Once in the vicinity of the flower, there are further attractants such as colours and hairs, which may be fixed or vibratile in a slight breeze. When a visiting insect, such as a small fly, crawls around in the flower it may get its proboscis or a leg caught in the guide to the pollen masses which may then be extracted from the staminal column, by a greater or lesser degree of force. Subsequently the insect may then deposit one or both pollen masses on one of the 5 stigmatic surfaces fused with the top of the staminal column and by this means cause effective pollination (Dyer 1983) – during dissections of the inflated base many Ceropegia flowers one would usually find trapped insects or flies in the swollen base of the corolla. Stingless bees have also been reported to visit the flowers of Ceropegia sandersonii.
Figure 10. Diverse expression of the corolla in some South African Ceropegia species. A, Ceropegia distincta subsp. haygharthii; B, C. nilotica; C, C. radicans subsp. smithii; D, C. racemosa; E, C. ampliata; and F, C. cimiciodora. (Photos A–C by Geoff Nichols; D & E by S.P. Bester; F by Martin Heigan)
Very little information is known on the natural use of this species by indigenous people. According to Gerrard (an avid plant collector in KwaZulu-Natal) the stems and leaves are eaten by native people and have an ‘agreeable, sauce-like flavour’.
Many other members of this genus, however, produce tubers and fleshy roots that are edible and used as a survival food.
This plant is mainly a collectable and grown as a container plant or even in a terrarium.
Ceropegia sandersonii is used as an ornamental plant and can grow in tropical, Mediterranean or subtropical climates outdoors or as houseplant. It is tender to cold and in cooler climates, more suitable indoors. Despite its exotic heritage, it’s fairly easy to grow as a houseplant in the British Isles, and are often seen in hanging baskets or pots greenhouses. It’s also suitable for growing in terrariums.
In temperate regions, Ceropegia sandersonii is cultivated as a houseplant and has been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit for plants assessed by the British Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), based on assessment of the plants performance under growing conditions in the United Kingdom, in 2017. It is also widely grown throughout Europe and the United States of America.
Figure 11. Ceropegia sandersonii sold at a local nursery, grown in a hanging pot. A, flower bud; B, flower at full anthesis. (Photos S.P. Bester)
Growing Ceropegia sandersonii
Plants require well-drained, ventilated and relatively moist soil. Plants will need some form of trellising to twine onto. Grow Ceropegia sandersonii in compost, in bright light, but out of direct sunshine. New plants are easily grown from seed or vegetatively from cuttings during the start of the active growth period, in spring. Water plants on a regular basis, but make sure that they never dry out completely. An occasional spray over the foliage is also recommended.
In its natural environment, root development is stimulated when the nodes touch the soil. The plant is thus easily grown from cuttings. Make sure the cutting contains a few nodes, let it dry out for a few days after which it can be planted.
If available, plants can also be easily grown from seed. Sow seed in well-drained compost and make sure that the seeding medium is kept wet until they germinate in 14 to 28 days, at 18–21ºC. Be sure to treat the seedlings for damping off and fungal infections.
A light sandy soil with a little compost and good drainage will give best results in growing plants. When feeding with artificial fertilizers use at least only half of the prescribed dosage, as the roots are sensitive and may easily burn. Refrain from over-watering seedlings or young cuttings, but make sure that the soil stays moist. Water mature plants sparingly. It naturally occurs mainly in summer-rainfall areas, so be sure to give it a resting period by withholding water in winter.
Ceropegia sandersonii is best used as a container plant under roofed patios or lapas, on verandas, balconies of flats or any other place in and around the house, where space is restricted. Some sources indicate that unfortunately, despite of their beauty, the flowers produce an unpleasant scent, which attracts flies acting as pollination agents. This is, however, refuted by the author who has grown a number of plants of this species, but without discerning any unpleasant scent.
Like Ceropegia woodii and C. ampliata, C. sandersonii is widely available at specialized nurseries globally, especially from nurseries specializing in succulent or novelty plants.
As with most stapeliads, ceropegias are also prone to infestation by mealy bugs, woolly aphids and red spider. Woolly aphids usually attack the roots or at the attachment of inflorescences where water may accumulate and this causes secondary infection by a fungus (black) rot that may easily destroy plants. Environmentally friendly or chemical treatments for all these diseases are described and listed in the Kirstenbosch Gardening Series on growing succulents.
Ceropegia sandersonii grows best in tropical or subtropical climates. Plants need partial shade or filtered sun. Shade need to be provided in hot climates. The plants prefer a rich, porous, well-drained soil mix, with extra leaf mould added, but adapt to a wide range of soil types. Plants can easily tolerate temperatures up to 45ºC, but prolonged cold will damage or kill the plant.
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Stoffel Petrus Bester
National Herbarium, Pretoria: Biosystematics and Collections Division
Acknowledgements: The author sincerely thanks the following people for kindly making their images available for use in this contribution: Adam Shuttleworth, Geoff Nichols and Martin Heigan.
Plant Type: Climber, Scrambler, Succulent
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Spring, Early Summer, Late Summer, Autumn, Sporadic/All year
Flower colour: Brown, Green, White
Aspect: Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Easy