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Desert Rose Repotting – Learn When To Repot Desert Rose Plants

Image by CharlesGibson

When it comes to repotting my plants, I admit I’m a bit of a nervous nelly, always afraid of doing more harm than good by repotting it the wrong way or at the wrong time. And the thought of repotting desert rose plants (Adenium obesum) was no exception. The following questions kept circling over and over in my mind, “Should I repot my desert rose? How to repot a desert rose? When to repot desert rose?” I was one bewildered and anxious gardener. The answers, fortunately, came to me and I’d like to share my desert rose repotting tips with you. Read on to learn more.

Should I Repot My Desert Rose?

Repotting is par for the course for desert rose owners, so it’s safe to say that a repot is definitely in your future and, more than likely, many times over. Is your desert rose the size you desire it to be? If your answer is ‘no,’ then it is recommended that you repot it every year or two until it reaches your desired size, as overall growth is decelerated once the plant becomes pot bound.

Have the roots of your desert rose infiltrated through their container or has its thick swollen stem (caudex) overcrowded the container? If ‘yes,’ then that is definitely a good indicator that you should repot. Desert rose roots have been known to bust through through plastic pots and even split or crack clay or ceramic pots.

Desert rose repotting should also be done if you suspect it has root rot, which the plant is susceptible to.

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When to Repot Desert Rose

The general rule of thumb is to repot desert rose during its period of active growth in the warm season – springtime, specifically, is most ideal. By doing so, the roots will have a full season of root growth ahead to expand and fill their new accommodations.

How to Repot a Desert Rose

Safety first! Wear gloves while handling this plant, as it exudes a sap that is considered poisonous! Seek out a container that is 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm.) wider in diameter than your previous one. Just be sure that the container chosen has good drainage to give the desert rose the dry roots it prefers.

Thick-walled, bowl-shaped containers are suggested since these style pots not only provide room for the roots to fan out but have a shallowness about them which allows soil to dry more quickly. You may use any type of pot such as clay, ceramic or plastic; however, clay pots may be a consideration, as they absorb excess moisture from the soil, reducing the potential for root rot.

Use a potting mix formulated for cacti or succulents or use regular potting soil mixed with equal parts perlite or sand to ensure the soil is well-draining. When repotting desert rose plants, make sure the soil is dry before gently removing the desert rose from its pot. The extraction may prove easier if you prop the container on its side and try wiggling the plant free with a firm hold on the base of the plant.

If the container is malleable, such as plastic, try gently squeezing the sides of the container as this will also help coax the plant free. Then, while holding the plant by its base, invest some time removing the old soil from around and in-between the roots. Prune away any unhealthy roots you uncover and treat the cuts with a fungicide.

Now it’s time to situate the plant in its new quarters. With a desert rose, the ultimate goal is to have an exposed engorged caudex above the soil line, as that is really the plant’s signature trademark. The caudex is a thick, swollen area of the stem near soil level.

The process to encourage an above ground bulbous caudex is referred to as “lifting.” However, it is not recommended to start lifting and exposing the caudex until your plant is at least 3 years old. If your plant is of the right age, then you will want to situate the plant so it sits an inch or two higher above the soil line than it did previously.

If you are exposing the caudex, please be aware that the newly exposed part is susceptible to sunburn, so you will want to gradually introduce the plant to direct sunlight over a several week timeframe. Get your plant into position in its new pot and then backfill it with soil, spreading out the roots as you go. Do not water the plant for a week or so after repotting to ensure that any damaged roots have had time to properly heal and then gradually resume your regular watering regimen.

It was true love when the Adenium my dad grew in the greenhouse attached to our home in Connecticut bloomed for the 1st time. What was this gorgeous plant with the twisting branches and the trumpet-shaped flowers? So exotic! Many moons later, after 1 year in Boston, 7 years in New York City and 30 years in California, I now have 1 of my own at my (relatively) new home in Tucson. I want to walk you through the simple steps to and tell you why I’m repotting my Adenium, aka Desert Rose.

These tropical, subtropical beauties are in the same family as oleanders and that’s why their flowers look so similar. They’re perennial succulents which store water in their stems, leaves, and roots during dry spells. For this reason, Adeniums are susceptible to root rot, especially in cool weather.

Repotting My Adenium:

Materials Used:

2 Gallon Adenium Obesum.

Low Plastic Bowl; 14″ w x 6″ deep.

This is a “cheapy” thin plastic terra cotta colored planter which I bought at a reuse & recycle store when I lived in Santa Barbara for 50 cents. It has been sprayed blue, then gold was added in & I just recently sprayed it gloss grape. It has 2 coats of a gloss sealer on to protect it from the strong desert sun. I like it because I can easily move it around if I have to bring it indoors or move it out of the summer sun. Never pass up a bargain I say!

Coffee Filter.

I covered the 4 drain holes with it so the light succulent mix wouldn’t run out of the pot with the 1st few waterings. Newspaper works fine too.

Succulent & Cactus Mix.

Remember, Adeniums are subject to root rot. You want a mix which drains really well. I use 1 which is produced locally – this one is good too. If you’re using a heavier s & c mix or potting soil, you want to add pumice or clean, small gravel to amend the drainage.

Here’s the mix I use which is nice & chunky. It consists of prococo coconut coir chips, pumice & compost – adeniums love it!


I use Tank’s local compost. Give Dr. Earth’s a try if you can’t find anywhere you live. Both enrich the soil naturally so the roots are healthy & the plants grow stronger. I added a couple of small handfuls of compost in because the Tucson growing season chugs along all year. If your Adenium is a houseplant, then skip it.

Steps Taken:

Remove the adenium from the grow pot. I did this by turning the plant on its side & gently stepping on the grow pot. I came right out like a dream!

Put the coffee filter over the drain holes & add in the mix to the desired depth.

Place the adenium in the pot.

I left the caudex ( the thickened base) & upper roots exposed because I like the look. Plus, the plant has some weight so it’ll sink down into the light mix over time.

Fill in with the rest of the mix & a couple of small handfuls of compost.

Let the plant settle in for a couple of days before watering.

Good to know:

Adeniums can be grown with the caudex above or below the soil line. Above the line is the look for me because I like plants with character – you know, wacky plants!

Adenium obesum (the 1 most commonly sold) emits a sap just like oleander. All parts are poisonous so if any break, be sure not to get that sap in your mouth, near your face or on your skin.

They can tolerate being tight in their pots.

The caudex will swell as the plant grows, & because it’s now exposed, will be a point of interest. The uppermost roots can be a bit exposed too.

Adeniums do well in containers which are wider than they are tall. For this reason, they make excellent bonsai specimens.

Repotting is best done during the growing season, not while it’s dormant.

I love my Adenium and can’t wait to see it grow and develop into a fascinating form. In the video, I said that I would show an Adenium which retails for $1400 but I was mistaken. Oops – it’s selling for $4000. Isn’t that baby fabulous?!

I was off by $2600 in the video but I would just love to have this specimen of horticultural goodness on my patio!

Happy gardening,

Ask Dr. Hort: Desert rose’s problem likely started with potting mix, large containers

Problem could be rooted in potting mix

Q: We bought a couple of nice-sized plants (foot tall, 3 gallons) from Lowe’s in the late summer. We put them is large pots at the edge of our east-northeast-facing patio. We added a thick layer of coarse stones for drainage and used a potting mix for the soil medium. At first they flourished lushly and bloomed like crazy. Then we had that near-weeklong period of high winds (we live off of the land side of the Intracoastal). After that the blooms fell off and the leaves yellowed and fell. Many looked damaged from rubbing on others. My wife then decided, against my advice, to trim the bare limbs up a bit “to add shape.” We are starting to see some new sprouts where she trimmed, but that dark green lushness just isn’t there. They get full sun until about 2 p.m. and the only water they get is dew and when it rains. The pots seem to drain well after a rain, which seems right as we understand they don’t like too much water. I’m wondering if we should mix some sand into the potting medium. Should we fertilize them? Rick Franz

A: The problem on your desert rose, Adenium obesum, . probably started with the potting mix and the large containers. If it was a peat based mix such as Promix, or Miracle Gro potting mix, repot mixing the peat mix with sand (playsand), 40/60. If it was “potting soil,” start over with 40/60 peat-based mix. The original rootball will probably still be intact (hasn’t ventured out much), so transplanting shouldn’t set your plant into a tailspin. Water biweekly with a bloom buster soluble fertilizer such as a 10-20-30, 11-35-15 or similar. The salty wind dehydrated the plant, causing the flower and leaf drop, but the deficient new growth would be because of the potting mix/fertilizer. Now to save the marriage. Pruning will add more character (branches) to a plant that doesn’t like to branch, so not to worry!

Skip the shells in plant beds and try organic mulches

Q: Could you please advise on the pros and cons of using crushed shell in beds? I am thinking about using shell in several of our beds. I like the light color and I understand is will hold up for a long time. My wife is concerned about the calcium that will leach into the ground and possibly affect her annuals and perennials. Randy Maxson

A: Using crushed shell in plant beds is a disaster for the plants involved. Your wife is right, the calcium carbonate will be released, causing the soil pH (acidity or alkalinity) to rise. This will make the soil very alkaline, locking up the micronutrients such as iron, zinc, manganese and others, causing your plants to stunt and die. You were right in it holding up. It will forever. You are better off to leave the shell at the beach and use organic mulches around the home, unless you want to create a seaside landscape.

Gloriosa lily commands attention

Q: A friend of mine sent me this picture to identify. I have no idea what it is. Can you help? Buz Fyvolent

A: The way the leaves clasp the stem with a tendril at the end of the leaf (very unique for a tendril) in the photo that you sent leads me to believe that is a gloriosa lily, (Gloriosa superba or Gloriosa rothschildiana), in bud stage. Yours is probably G. rothschildiana, having the broader leaf. The flower will open upside down with the petals folding backward and the reproductive parts hanging down. If you want to produce seed, rub noses between two flowers to help spread the pollen. The vines sprout from an L-shaped tuber (storage organ) in the ground in the spring, bloom summer through fall, dying back in the winter. The striking colors of red, yellow and orange make this vine a showstopper, it also will last up to a week as a cut flower.

Desert rose (Adenium obesum)

The Desert Rose is a small succulent tree native to Africa and Arabia which has fleshy leaves and develops a bulbous base. It produces large pink and white or red flowers when it gets enough sunlight.

The Desert Rose is popular as an ornamental plant but not often seen as a bonsai. It is vigorous and healthy under the right conditions and with proper care. The Desert Rose Bonsai adapts easily to growing in a pot, what makes it well suited for bonsai. During winter time the plant will drop its leaves except in special tropical climates. The milk sap of the Desert Rose is poisonous.

If you need help identifying your tree, try our Bonsai tree identification guide.

Specific Bonsai care guidelines for the Desert Rose

Position: In a warm climate, the Desert Rose can be kept outside year round. In temperate climates, it can be placed outside in a sunny position or in semi-shade from May to September. From autumn until spring the tree needs a warm place in the house or greenhouse with a lot of light. The temperature should not fall below 5° C / 40° F. In most cases the Desert Rose will drop its leaves in winter.

Watering: The Desert Rose needs to watered only every 7 to 10 days.

Feeding: Use liquid fertilizer at half the recommended strength once a month from spring to autumn.

Pruning and wiring: You can prune the Adenium Bonsai year-round. Flowers appear on new shoots, so time pruning well. Pruning stimulates more ramification and, as a result, more flower buds to develop. Trim back long shoots and cut off damaged parts, making clean cuts just above a leaf node or junction. To avoid the poisonous milk sap you better wear gloves when you work on the plant! When you wire the branches do not wind the wire too tightly so the branches can grow thicker without wire marks being left on them.

Repotting: Repot every two or three years in spring with root-pruning. A well-draining soil mix is needed as excess wetness is a sure way to kill the Desert Rose.

Propagation: The Desert Rose tree can be propagated from seeds and cuttings.

Pests and diseases: Aphids, mealybugs and spider mites may attack Desert Roses which are weakened by poor conditions. Good care will prevent most infestations.

For more detailed information on these techniques, try our Bonsai tree care section.

How to Care For a Desert Rose Plant

  • The desert rose can’t survive in cold temperatures. Therefore it’s usually planted in pots so it can be moved indoors when the weather changes. For adequate drainage, plant your desert rose in one part potting soil mixed with one part perlite or sand. A layer of gravel below the soil and another above it helps prevent stem rot .
  • The desert rose can be grown from seeds or from stem cuttings. Let the stem cuttings dry out before planting. Plant them in the springtime and keep them in filtered sunlight until they begin to grow.
  • The desert rose needs full sunlight and a temperature of 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (21.1 to 26.7 degrees Celsius). The temperature should never drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 degrees Celsius) .
  • The desert rose only needs watering when the soil feels dry. In the winter, it only needs water every three or four weeks. This lets it be dormant so it can bloom better in the springtime .
  • The desert rose can be fertilized once a month in the spring and summer. Water it lightly after fertilizing.
  • The desert rose should be pruned once in early spring, before it begins to bloom. Cutting off long, leggy branches encourage the growth of more flowers.
  • The desert rose should be repotted every year or two. The new vessel should be 1 or 2 inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters) larger than the previous one.
  • The desert rose is prone to mealy bugs, aphids and spider mites .

Looking for a dramatic low-water succulent plant? Try desert rose! This sun-loving plant is perfect for you if you don’t want to water a lot and want a variety that looks different than the typical spiky, spiny succulents.
Desert rose looks like a bonsai; it has a thick, swollen truck (that holds water during times of drought) and shiny, dark green leaves. But the real appeal comes from its showy, trumpet-shaped flowers that appear in festive shades of pink, white, purple, and red. Look around and you can often find bicolor varieties, types with double flowers, or those with variegated foliage.
Desert rose looks beautiful when planted in the landscape as an annual (in the North) or perennial (in frost-free regions), but is also an excellent tropical plant for container gardens. No matter where you grow desert rose, it’s a perfect companion for cacti and other succulents. Because it is a tropical plant, it doesn’t survive frost (temperatures of 32F or 0C).
Desert Rose Questions?
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Get more tips for growing and decorating with desert rose in our new free cacti and succulent guide!

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