Subscribe Today
Give a Gift
Customer Service

Phoenix Home and Garden
Subscribe Today!
For the HomeFor the GardenFood & EntertainingResourcesArticle Archive
For The Garden

Desert Rose Romance

Author: Lori A. Johnson
Issue: September, 2017, Page 40
Photos by Lori A. Johnson

Many adenium blooms, such as this hybrid, fade into pale pastel hues as they age.
An exotic plant species enchants a local horticulturist with a penchant for color and form

Dan Smith is addicted to adeniums. Commonly known as desert rose, these native plants of Africa come in a plethora of species and hybrids perfectly suited for the low desert’s hot, arid conditions. For the Mesa resident, one glimpse of the unusual caudiciform succulents led to a new passion.

Adenium enthusiast Dan Smith estimates he has nearly 300 plants in his collection.
When initially planning his garden, Dan was attracted to the tropical look of plumeria and thought they’d make a unique plant to grow in a desert environment, but a chance sighting of an adenium caught his fancy. He was hooked. “I loved the unique look
of the caudex. They don’t take as long as plumeria to blossom, they take less space, and the flowers are nice,” he says. “I’ve been growing adeniums for more than 10 years now.” Today, his collection consists of nearly 300 individual plants representing virtually every known variety. “I believe I have all except for Adenium multiflorum,” he says, noting, “I lost that this spring.”

Each plant in Dan’s collection is tagged and in a numbered pot, which he tracks in a custom database. “I enter the date and what ‘action’ I performed, like up-potting, trimming or seed planting. I add the pot number; the family, genus and species of the plant; and a plant and/or blossom description. Sometimes I even include a photograph,” Dan explains. He also includes the source of each plant, as many were ordered from overseas growers. “I have gotten seeds or plants from Australia, China, India, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Taiwan and Thailand,” he says. One plant from Pakistan arrived packaged in nothing more than a heavy cloth bag, with Dan’s address written directly on it.

Purchased in 2008, the A. obesum hybrid ‘Star of Happiness’ was Dan’s first import from Taiwan.
The plant, a hybrid of A. obesum remains one of Dan’s favorites, of which he has several, including his very first acquisition— beloved for its sentimental value—which is bent at a 90-degree angle. An unusual crested adenium and a monstrose variety, both from Thailand, also are at the top of the list. “I had a hard time finding these, so I value them,” Dan says. “The crested plant had a difficult trip here. It was broken in a number of spots, when I received it.” Other favorite standouts include an A. swazicum purchased at the
Desert Botanical Garden, and his first import, a cultivar called ‘Star of Happiness.’ Another cultivar, ‘Doxon,’ is credited with starting the multipetal blossom trend, while the ‘Dorset Horn’ earned its place on his list when only three of the 90 seeds he tried to grow developed.

Getting His Hands Dirty
Dan grows upwards of 75 percent of his plants from seed in a small greenhouse he built in his backyard. “Because I can control the temperature and, somewhat, the humidity, it’s a great place to germinate seeds and grow seedlings,” he says. “Until an adenium gets big enough to go outside, it stays in the greenhouse. I love growing plants from seed. Give me a seed that’s impossible to germinate or grow, and I’ll take on that challenge any day.” He also built benches that display his collection during the summer as well as a shade house above them. In the fall, he disassembles the benches and moves the plants to the patio, garage, greenhouse—and even the house—for the winter, then sets everything up in the yard again in the spring.

Photos - From left: Dan imported this A. obesum hybrid ‘Carnation’ from China as a graft in 2015.

Tall plumeria trees in the front yard of Dan’s home provide shade for potted adeniums below.

One feature he tries to highlight is the multitude of available bloom colors. “If you look at the blossoms of the true species plant, such as A. obesum, you will find that they are light red/pink with little variation. All other colors come from the zillions of hybrids that are out there now. They include some form of red or pink with different stripes or formations. Whites have been around for a while, also. Only recently have the hybridizers developed yellows and blacks and now orange and even some blueish picotee,” Dan explains. “I still haven’t found a yellow that won’t fade to white in our low humidity and bright sun. I get less fade in my greenhouse where those issues are moderated.” Bloom size can range from 1 inch across to as large as 4 inches, and many newer hybrids feature multipetal blooms.

Photos - From left: Due to the unusual markings on its petals, this unknown plumeria is quite a conversation piece.

This A. swazicum represents what is commonly referred to as a desert rose.

Sculptural Appeal
Another characteristic of interest to adenium aficionados is the shape of the caudex, or woody treelike stem. “If the shape is interesting enough, who cares about the flower?” Dan jokes. “To have a beautiful bloom plus an interesting shape is a bonus.” Dan notes there are basically two forms of caudex—the enlarged, twisted roots and the bulbous mass. “There are also cultivars known as Thai soco, which are grown to have a very large caudex and multiple stems,” he adds. While he doesn’t have any examples now, he does have several Thai soco seedlings and expects to see good results from those in four to five years.

For now, though, his wish list includes obtaining adenium species collected from the wild, and he continues to seek a yellow variety that doesn’t fade, as well as a good orange bloom. “I’m slowly expanding my succulent collection,” Dan says. “I love all the caudiciform plants. If it’s unique and hard to grow, I want it.”

This A. obesum hybrid is known as ‘Lady Flame.’

Dan purchased this fragrant Plumeria stenopetala from a Florida grower.
Disposable cups give seedlings a fresh start in Dan’s greenhouse until the plants are mature enough to transfer to pots and join the collection outdoors.

Tips for Growing Adeniums
l Growing season for adeniums is April to October in the Sonoran Desert. Give plants at least four hours of sun—or more, including full sun for large plants—during this time.

• Plant adeniums in a fast-draining soil, such as a cactus mix with additional pumice and coir chips.

• It is virtually impossible to overwater during the hot months. Water approximately three times per week, making sure that each plant receives enough water to run out of the bottom of the pot.
• Fertilize regularly. Apply a low nitrogen fertilizer as often as every two weeks.

• Adeniums go dormant when temperatures dip below 50 degrees. During this time, protect plants from winter cold. Bring them indoors or place in a greenhouse. Do not water when plants are dormant, as they are susceptible to rot.

For more information about adeniums, visit

Dan grafted this vibrant red hybrid onto an A. obesum rootstock.

An adenium hybrid fittingly named ‘Gorgeous’ was imported from China in 2013.
Before he discovered adeniums, Dan grew slow-growing plumeria, including this unknown variety in his front yard. The plant is now tree-sized and has grown taller than his house.

Subscribe Today!