The desert rose (Adenium obesum) is an attractive, low-maintenance perennial that can tolerate drought and heat. It's native to the arid regions of Africa and Arabia, also known as Sabi star, impala lily or mock azalea. In many cultures, desert rose is believed to bring good luck and prosperity. Despite its name, it's not a rose but a succulent that can grow up to 3m tall in the wild, with a thick, bulbous trunk and fleshy stems.
This plant will add a touch of exotic beauty to your home, blooming from spring to summer, with sweet-scented flowers that come in vibrant shades of pink, red, white, and yellow. Each flower will last up to 10 days. Desert rose is relatively easy to care for and can be grown as a house plant in the UK. Please note that desert rose is toxic if ingested, so keep it away from children and pets.
How to grow desert rose
The desert rose plant thrives in well-draining, sandy soil with a slightly acidic to neutral pH. It grows best in full sun but can also tolerate partial shade. The ideal temperature range for desert rose is between 18-29°C and therefore it's best grown as a house plant.
Where to grow desert rose
Desert roses thrive in bright locations with high temperatures during spring and summer. In the UK they're usually grown indoors – ideal for a glasshouse, bright room or conservatory. However, they can be grown outdoors in a sheltered spot if the night-time temperature remains above 10℃.
Desert rose is more likely to flower when it gets several hours of sunlight a day. Avoid midday sun, especially if you have left your plant outdoors, as it can scorch the leaves. Placing your plant in a sunny spot will also reduce the risk of over-watering and root rot. Don't place desert roses in low-light areas as they won't thrive.
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How to plant desert rose
Choose a pot that is slightly larger than the plant's root ball and has drainage holes at the bottom. Use free-draining compost mix, with added sharp sand or pumice, to fill the pot, leaving enough room for the plant's roots. Place the plant in the centre of the pot and cover the roots with compost, firming it gently. Water the plant thoroughly and place it in a sunny location.
If you want your desert rose to produce a vibrant display of blooms, keep the plant slightly pot-bound. Then repot it every three to four years in spring, using a peat-free cactus and succulent potting mix.
How to care for desert rose
Watering: water consistently during spring or summer. Let the soil fully dry out before watering your plant and reduce the frequency of watering in autumn and winter.
Feeding: use a cactus fertiliser every two months when the plant is growing and every three months when it is dormant through winter. This will give it the essential nutrients it needs to thrive.
Encourage flowering: to encourage flowering, provide a cool and dry dormant period from autumn to early spring with infrequent watering and a few hours of direct sunlight daily. Maintain an ideal temperature fluctuating between 12-15℃. From mid-spring, increase watering and use a potassium-based fertiliser. Deadhead regularly.
Protect desert rose from frost and cold temperatures, as it's not hardy.
How to prune desert rose
Prune desert rose in early spring before new growth appears. Remove any dead, damaged, or crossing branches, and shape the plant as desired. It can also be pruned to control its size. However, do not remove more than a third of the plant's foliage at once. Remove any yellow or wilted leaves, as well as plant debris. Use clean scissors or shears to minimise the risk of bacterial or fungal infections. Avoid cutting through yellowed tissue as this can lead to infections or disease.
How to propagate desert rose
Desert rose can be propagated from stem cuttings or seeds:
From a cutting: cut a stem that is at least 8cm long in spring or summer. Wet the cut end and dip it in rooting hormone. Place in a small pot of compost – use a cactus and succulent potting mix and a pot with good drainage to prevent rotting. Keep the cutting in a bright, warm place, at a temperature of about 20℃. Water it enough to keep the soil slightly moist, but let the top half dry out between waterings. It can take two to eight weeks for the roots to form. You will know if the cutting has rooted if the leaves are green and firm and you see small roots coming out of the dried cut end. After about 12 weeks, you should see new leaves growing. When the new growth is strong, move the cutting to a bigger pot and care for it like an adult plant with the tips above.
From seed: Sow seeds about 1cm deep in cactus and succulent potting mix. Keep the soil moist but not wet and let the extra water drain out of the pot. Put the pot in a clear bag to keep the soil moist for longer and place it somewhere bright but not sunny, with a temperature around 25℃ and some heat from below. It might take two to eight weeks for the seeds to germinate. Take off the bag when the seedlings have their third leaf and move them to their own 5cm pots after another month
Growing desert rose: problem solving
- Pinprick-sized creatures spinning tiny webs near bleached leaves – these are red spider mites. Mist the plant to raise humidity as red spider mites thrive in dry conditions, and try a biological control if it's a large infestation
- Woolly, white insects clinging to stems damaging your plants – these are mealybugs. Remove with tweezers if there aren't too many, try a biological control or use a soapy spray
- Tiny brown barnacle-like dots on plants, which suck sap and weaken plants – these are scale insects. Treat as for mealybugs
- Withered stem, yellow leaves, stunted growth, and dry, brittle patches on the edges of the leaves: these are signs of sun-scorch, overheating or under-watering. Move the plant to a shadier spot and water it more often. You can also repot it in a larger pot with moist compost to help the roots stay hydrated. Keep in mind that the brighter the location, the more frequently you'll need to water
- Growth is stunted, leaves quickly turn yellow, lack of new growth, caudex (thick stem) is brown and soft: these are signs of root rot, due to the soil being too wet or waterlogged for a long time. Remove the plant from the pot and check the roots. If they are brown and mushy, cut them off and replant the plant in fresh, dry compost. If they are yellow, they are healthy and can be repotted as normal
- Yellowing leaves which then fall off: this is a sign of watering, light or fertilisation problems. Adjust the watering schedule according to the season and the soil moisture. Provide bright but indirect light for the plant. Feed once a month during the growing season with a balanced fertiliser
- No flower buds or flowers appear on the plant: this is a sign of an insufficient dormant period, where the temperature is too constant throughout the year. Lower the temperature by a few degrees during the dormancy period and reduce the watering frequency. As spring arrives, increase the temperature, water, and fertiliser to encourage flowering
Advice on buying desert rose
- When buying desert rose, choose a plant with healthy leaves and a well-developed root system. Avoid plants with yellowing or wilting leaves, as they may be stressed or diseased
- Check the plant for pests or signs of damage, such as spots or holes in the leaves
- Desert rose is avaiable to buy as plants or seed
Where to buy desert rose
Desert rose varieties to try
• Adenium obesum ‘Ansu Baobab’: a dwarf variety – grown for its stunted, bonsai tree appearance.
Height x Spread: 30cm x 20cm
• Adenium obesum 'Anouk' is a small variety known for its striking pink flowers.
H x S: 90cm x 90cm