Most in the Moraceae family are woody shrubs like figs and mulberries, however, the genus Dorstenia contains mostly herbaceous perennials - only about 10% exhibit the woody habit of the family tree. One of the enchanting characteristics of Dorstenias is the remarkable variability, even in the same species. Each one looks like a little sculpture exhibiting various shapes, colors, and growth habit. With time a plant can form its own miniature grove. Those are only a few of the attributes making these excellent windowsill plants. Some can get larger – one of the largest is Dorstenia gigas from Socotra, which can get to 4 feet tall – but for the most part, in cultivation, they remain smaller plants and are slow growers.
One of my favorites, and the most common, is Dorstenia foetida (pictured top). The Latin name foetida means smelly or stinking. There is an unusual smell that reminds me of the odor of latex, but this is only detectable it's injured or a leaf is popped off or broken – in which case a white latex-type sap flows from the injury.
Dorstenia like to spread their progeny as far and wide as possible. The seeds are forcefully ejected from the strange, flat pad called a hypanthodium (pictured center and bottom). The seeds find new homes in neighboring pots and happily sprout. The seedlings are easy to move – or remove – so these aren’t a pest, like oxalis might be in a collection. And, the novelty of the plant means visitors are happy to leave my house with a little one to take home and try for themselves.
With a little understanding of what the plant needs to thrive, it’s actually an easy one to grow. The caudex-forming Dorstenia are mostly found in the warm areas of northeast Africa – like Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Oman. So, the plants prefer warmth and more water during the growing season than most other succulent plants. And, they like to go nearly dry between waterings. Dorstenias do well with a shot of morning or afternoon sun and filtered light the rest of the day. The soil needs to be well drained. A mixture of my regular potting soil with a little extra perlite suits my plants. During the winter, keep the Dorstenia in a bright, warm window and cut back on the water. Year-round, the plants like higher humidity. To keep those crazy “flowers” coming, fertilize Dorstenia a few times a year.