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Adenium Roem. & Schult.

Family Apocynaceae
published in [reference + year] [if republished, enter second reference]
This genus name is correct

Common names: Karoo rose, desert rose, impala lily, Sabi star, or simply adenium

Sheet based on “Adenium Culture: Producing Large Specimens Quickly” by Mark A.


Dimmitt - used with permission

Associated groups: Caudiciforms

Introduction to the genus


Plants of the genus Adenium make superb collector's specimens whether maintained as
dwarfs or grown into small trees. Both the swollen, twisted stems and large bright
flowers are eye-catching. But despite their great beauty they are not very popular and
are seldom grown to large sizes, even by succulent collectors. Adeniums have acquired
an undeserved reputation for being slow-growing and temperamental. They are in fact
fast-growing and easy to cultivate when given proper care. This article is devoted to
detailing their cultural needs.

Whether regarded as full species or un-deserving of even varietal status (compare


Plaizier, 1980, with Rowley, 1983), the taxa are distinctly different horticultural entities.
Their differences must be recognized in order to grow them well. The cultural
techniques and resulting performance described here are for seed-grown plants in
containers in the semi-desert climate of Tucson Arizona, outdoors from April through
October. Expect similar performance wherever comparable sun and warmth can be
provided. Old, especially wild-collected, specimens should be treated much more
carefully.

Adenium obesum in Yemen

Breeders in India and Florida are growing thousands of adeniums in fields, and many
out-standing variants have appeared. There is a seedling from Florida with velvety,
blackish-red flowers. Several forms with very ruffled petals have been selected in India.
Many hybrids have also been produced in recent years.

General cultivation techniques


A fundamental change in the prevailing perception about adeniums is necessary to grow
them well. The common wisdom is that they cannot tolerate a good watering. I've seen
many ten-year old plants only a few inches tall stunted by chronic water stress. The
essence of this article can be summarized in two crucial rules:

• Grow adeniums as wetland tropicals, not desert plants.


• Reject the first rule when the plants are dormant.

Watering

While some populations do grow in extremely arid deserts, it does not necessarily
follow that they need to be wedged in a rock crevice and constantly deprived of water.
Many xerophytes evolved from tropical species that adapted to aridity rather than
migrated as the forest retreated due to climatic change. Adeniums are apparently among
these, and most of the taxa have not lost their affinity for more mesic growing
conditions.

Fig.1 The original seedling of


Adenium 'Endless Sunset' at five years old.
The plant stands five feet above the 18 inch pot

All taxa (except possibly Adenium obesum (A.socotranum)) respond to generous


watering during warm weather. Treat them as if they were tropicals such as hibiscus or
gingers and they will respond dramatically. This is especially true of many of the
hybrids which exhibit great vigor. Keep the potting mix continuously moist during the
active growth season. Root-bound plants may be watered almost daily in hot weather.
Adeniums are planted as hedges in the Philippines and India, where they thrive on more
than 60 inches (1500mm) of rainfall a year 1). The taxa that lack an obligatory dormancy
(Adenium obesum and Adenium swazicum) can also be watered through the winter if
they are kept warm (at least 80F, 27C days, 5OF, 10C nights), but let the medium
become nearly dry between irrigations.

This is sufficiently important to justify repetition; Water them as if they were coleus or
tomato plants while they're growing in hot weather, but as if they were delicate, rot-
prone cacti during winter. Adeniums are extremely susceptible to rot when watered too
frequently during cool weather or if chronically waterlogged at any season. Use of a
well-drained potting medium prevents most rotting problems.

Light

Adeniums require high light intensity, 5000 to 8000 foot-candles outdoors (full sun is
about 10,000 fc in clear, dry air). They tend to grow spindly in climates with cloudy
summers or if they receive sun less than half the day. In desert climates most taxa
perform best in light afternoon shade (30-50%). Mature plants of all taxa can be
acclimated to full desert sun, though only Adenium swazicum performs well in extreme
heat. In cooler, cloudier, or more humid climates adeniums should be in full sun all day
outside or with 4000-6000 footcandles under glass.

Keep the plant facing the same direction all summer. If the pot is rotated, intense sun
can severely burn the formerly shady sides of the stems. Autumn is the most hazardous
time, when the sun is low in the sky but still strong. The bases of young plants are
especially sun-tender and should be protected from the sun of arid climates until they
are at least three inches (7-8 cm) thick. When first put outside after winter storage,
foliage may scorch. This is not serious; new, sun-adapted leaves will soon appear

Temperature

Adeniums thrive during moderately hot weather (85-95F, 30-35C), preferably


accompanied by moderate to high humidity. However, growth and flowering seem to be
suppressed by temperatures consistently above 100F (38C). Plants grown outdoors in
southern Florida 2), or in a greenhouse in southern Arizona, grow nearly year-round. The
common factors in these two locations are moderately high temperatures and high
humidity. Plants grown outdoors in southern Arizona begin vigorous stem-growth only
after the monsoon (humid tropical air) arrives in July.

Dormancy is induced in all taxa when nights regularly fall below about 50F (10C).
When completely dry and dormant they can tolerate near-freezing temperatures, though
there is increased risk of root-rot below 50. Even a light frost will cause severe damage
and usually subsequent death from rot to all adeniums except Adenium swazicum,
which tolerates upper 20sF (about -2C) when dry and dormant.

Feeding
Fig.2 Four-year-old cutting of A. 'Crimson Star'. It spreads
four feet in an 18-inch pot and shows substantial stem thickening

Adeniums also respond well to regular and generous fertilizing. I use slow-release
fertilizer in my potting media and inject my irrigation water during the growing season
with a balanced fertilizer such as 20-20-20 plus micro-nutrients at a concentration of
200 ppm nitrogen.

Inadequate watering and feeding are the primary reasons adeniums have been regarded
as slow-growing. Generous culture produces literally unbelievable results. (An eight-
month-old plant splitting a six-inch pot that I entered in the seedling category at a CSSA
show was disqualified by the judges because they didn't believe it was less than the limit
of a year old.) Specimens several feet tall and wide in 18-inch containers can be grown
in only three to five years (Figs.1, 2) and sometimes even less.

Adeniums seem to require high nitrogen for both strong growth and copious flowering.
For one year I used a low nitrogen fertilizer (2-10-10) on most of my mature adeniums
in an attempt to thicken their stems while minimizing further elongation. Not only did
the low-nitrogen plants not thicken appreciably, they also flowered poorly that year.
(Well-fed plants flowered normally.)

Overwintering

Adeniums must be grown in containers in climates with frost or cool, wet winters.
Adenium obesum, Adenium swazicum, and some of their hybrids, can be kept active by
maintaining night temperatures above 50F (10C). The other taxa will enter various
degrees of dormancy in autumn regardless of conditions.

Recognizing dormancy is critical to a plant's survival. Not only does the timing and
depth of dormancy vary among taxa, but individual plants (even of the same clone) vary
with cultural conditions from year to year. Dormancy is often signaled by a sudden
yellowing and dropping of most or all of the leaves. Some weeks before this occurs you
may notice a significant decline in water consumption. Either of these events demands
sharply reduced watering.
There may be some shedding of older leaves near the autumnal equinox, apparently in
response to shortening days. This event does not require less watering if the stems
continue to grow new leaves. Partial defoliation may also occur at other times in
response to a missed watering or a dramatic change in weather. As long as stem-tips are
actively producing new leaves, keep watering normally.

Dormancy varies from complete defoliation (Adenium boehmianum and Adenium


multiflorum) to just curtailment of stem growth (A.somalense and A.arabicum retain
leaves if watered sparingly). Some taxa flower primarily during dormancy either with or
without leaves (Adenium obesum (forms previously known as A.somalense and
A.multiflorum)).

Fig.4 Adenium obesum (“Big Mama”)


filling
Fig.3 The same individual of 'Endless a 45-gallon container at about 12 years of
Sunset' age
as in Fig.1 at 13 years of age. It stands It measures 71/2 feet (2.3 m) tall from the
seven feet above the 30-inch pot, having ground and the exposed root-mass 3) is
added two feet in height in the preceding 34 inches (86 cm) wide. Grown by John
eight years plus a lot of stem thickening. Lucas
(photo) of Tradewinds South Nursery,
Florida.

If a warm sunny space is not available or if the plant is an obligate winter rester, reduce
or stop watering when the nights regularly fall below 50F (10C) or when a plant signals
onset of dormancy. Place in a dry, cool but frost-free location. Light is not essential to
dormant plants, except that the winter bloomers will not flower normally in poor light. I
have successfully overwintered mature plants of Adenium obesum, Adenium swazicum,
and Adenium multiflorum under a carport, with no water, from November to April. I
winter most of my large plants in an unheated and uncooled greenhouse in which
temperatures approach 90F (32C) on sunny days and commonly dip below 40F (5C) at
night. Under these conditions many plants continue flowering well into the winter, but
they eventually shut down. This is colder than ideal and a few plants succumb to rot
each winter.

Recognizing the end of dormancy is even more crucial. Root rot most often strikes in
spring as a result of too much water too early; overpotted plants are most susceptible.
The arborescent form of Adenium obesum (A.somalense) from northwestern Kenya is
particularly sensitive. On the other hand, adeniums will usually not leaf out if the
potting medium is completely dry. Therefore I recommend watering sparingly through
the winter (as little as once per month for large, leafless plants). Watch for expanding
terminal buds in spring. At the first sign of activity increase the watering frequency
gradually until the plants are in full growth.

Potting

Adeniums need ample root-space for rapid growth. Root-bound plants greatly curtail
their growth even if watered and fed generously Plants should be repotted frequently
until they attain their desired size. Plastic, porous clay, concrete, and stoneware pots are
all suitable. But be aware that the massive roots of adeniums have no respect for
expensive ceramic pots. Use thick-walled and preferably bowl-shaped containers to
avoid breakage.

Potting mixes are more variable among growers and are the subject of more debate than
any other horticultural topic. I will stress only two critical points here. First: The potting
mix MUST provide excellent drainage and aeration if the plants are to survive the
watering regime I recommend. Any medium that satisfies these criteria is at least
satisfactory. Adeniums perform well in media ranging from 4:1 pumice : humus to pure
Sunshine Mix #1 (which is mostly peat moss) and at pH values ranging from 5.5 to 8.
Second: Each grower must experiment to find the potting medium that works well for
him or her. Sorry, there is no better answer!

It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of experimentation. For example,


several Tucson growers have concluded that the humus ingredient significantly
influences performance. Adeniums and many other succulents perform superbly in
media containing Sunshine Mix, Ball Mix, and coir (a peat-like product made of
coconut husk) and poorly with several other brands. We don't know whether these
results are due to the products or culture conditions; both vary greatly. It's a good
practice to obtain several plants of the same kind and pot them in different mixes to
determine the best one for your cultural conditions.

Repot during the active growing season, the earlier the better. Plants that have not filled
the pot with roots by fall are much more likely to rot from an ill-timed watering. Do not
water for a week or so after repotting if any large roots were damaged or if the weather
is not warm and dry. If large roots have not been damaged, follow the tropical,
nonsucculent model and water repotted plants immediately. Water stress can trigger
dormancy which may not break until the following summer. Treating cuts with dusting
sulfur and watering-in with fungicide are probably beneficial, though I rarely do so.
The plant can be raised above the previous soil line, exposing more of the caudex or
succulent roots. Beware that newly exposed roots are susceptible to sunburn; they
require a full growing season of gradually reduced shading to acclimate to full desert
sun.

Pests and diseases

Fig.5 A display of large adeniums


at the 1995 CSSA Convention in Tucson, Arizona

Pests rarely damage adeniums grown outdoors. Sometimes new leaves are deformed by
an unseen pest in the growing tips (probably thrips or psyllids). Control requires a
systemic insecticide; several applications may be necessary. Despite the extremely
poisonous sap. rodents occasionally gnaw on roots and trunks.

Indoors mealy bugs, spider mites, aphids, and white flies often infest plants; all can
cause severe damage. Use pesticides carefully, as adeniums are sensitive to some.
Insecticidal soap and micro-encapsulated diazinon (Knox.Out) are safe for the plants (I
make no claims for humans or pets). The systemic Dimethoate 267EC is not phytotoxic
if used as labelled at temperatures below 90F (32C). Beware; Cygon has the same active
ingredient but the “inert” solvent kills foliage.

Roots are susceptible to water molds (e.g., Pythium and Phytophthora) which thrive in
waterlogged soils. Prevention is the best strategy because most fungicides are
ineffective against this group and the few that are (e.g., Ridomil, Subdue, Banrot) are
expensive. Use of a well-drained medium and careful watering prevents most root rot.

Warning; do not use any pre-emergent herbicide with the active ingredient oryzalin
(e.g., Surflan) on adeniums or most other Apocynaceae (e.g., Plumeria, Pachypodium,
Mandevilla, Macrosiphonia). A single application permanently arrests root growth and
the plants slowly die. Oleander is the only member of the family tested that is
unaffected 4).

Etiolation (weak, elongated growth) is caused by too much water and/or fertilizer
combined with too little light or poor air movement. This common problem is easily
remedied by improving the growing conditions and pruning off leggy stems.
Care of mature specimens

When a plant reaches the desired size, reduce watering and feeding to slow further
growth. Even in hot weather, adeniums maintain well on as little as two waterings per
month. Hard-grown plants have leaves only at the stem tips, fully revealing their
gnarled forms. While floriferousness may decline noticeably, hardened plants are more
resistant to pests and diseases.

Propagation

Superior clones can be propagated by cuttings. Large hardened stems will root
dependably but may take several months. I get the fastest results with either vigorous
four- to six-inch (10 to 15cm) tip-cuttings or the next lower stem segment of semi-
hardened “wood” dipped in liquid rooting hormone, and stuck in a coarse medium (e.g.,
perlite-vermiculite) under mist with bottom heat of 90-95F (32-35C). Under these
conditions roots form in two to four weeks. Using a fungicide formulated against water
molds reduces loss. Keep them well watered; cuttings that wilt usually fail to root.

Fig. 6 A “large” specimen of Adenium obesum


(previously a diminutive taxon, A.somalense var. crispum)
at seven years from seed.
It is two feet (0.6 m) tall in a 12-inch (30 cm) pot.

Grafting is also an effective method of propagation, and it can also improve growth
form. Spindly plants such as typical clones of Adenium swazicum become noticeably
sturdier when grafted onto a stouter rootstock. Grafting is also useful for combining a
superior flower with a caudiciform rootstock or for placing several flower types onto a
single plant. Cleft-grafting of half-inch (1.25 cm) thick stems produces a smoother
union than side-grafting. I've had greater than 90% success using actively growing
rootstock; the scion may be dormant or active.

Growing from seed is easy though pollination is a challenge (Anderson, 1983) and seed
cleaning is tedious. My success when using known compatible parents ranges from
nearly 100% in some years to zero in others. Many clones seem to be either male- or
female-sterile, and some rarely cross in either direction. After the follicles mature,
remove the coma (tuft of hairs) at both ends of each seed before sowing.

Seeds germinate in about a week at 85F (30C). Treating with fungicide before sowing
reduces loss. Seedlings of most taxa grow rapidly. They will usually keep growing
through the first winter under tropical conditions and sometimes a second before
obligate dormancy appears. Seedlings of several taxa and most hybrids will flower
within a year or two, sometimes in as little as six to eight months. Adenium obesum
(Adenium somalense crispum) and Adenium multiflorum mature in about three and five
years, respectively.

Producing large specimens

As is true of many plants, only young adeniums have a capacity for rapid growth.
Production of large specimens requires pushing seedlings or small cuttings with
generous culture during their first two or three years. Growth slows greatly in maturity;
old plants can seldom be induced to resume vigorous growth. The 'Endless Sunset' in
Fig.3 is eight years older than the photo of the same plant in Fig.1, so it attained most of
its present size in its first few years.

Fear not that plants pushed in this manner will lose their character. Large plants with
luxuriant foliage make lots of photosynthate, which in mature adeniums is channelled
largely into stem thickening. Don't compare adeniums with related Pachypodium
species, which do indeed grow spindly weak stems when pushed, especially at high
temperatures. I have grown the arborescent form of Adenium obesum (A.somalense) to
eight feet tall in two years from seed. In their third year they entered maturity in which
flowering began, stem elongation slowed, and the main stems began thickening 5). In
their fifth year they are well on their way toward the “mini-baobab” form of wild plants.
Growth form (i.e., tree or shrub) is genetically determined, while growing conditions
during youth strongly influence ultimate size.