Lithops are the enchanting little plants that have fascinated me for more than 3 years in more ways than one. Because of their rock-like appearance, they are often commonly confused with stones at first glance, and the only time you can really tell that they are a plant is when the lithop flowers are in bloom with their white, yellow, or rarely, pink petals. These little plants originate from South Africa where they mimic rocks for protection and camouflage.
Lithops have two very fat, specialized leaves fused together to create the head of the plant, one roundish structure with a crease in the middle. As years go by and the plant matures, lithops obtain more of these heads.
The lithops thrive in rocky, gravelly, dry areas in Namibia and South Africa. They bloom every fall if they are healthy. Doug Dawson, a retired mathematician who travels to Africa each year to study lithops and other succulents, tells us that there are many different cultivars and varieties which growers and enthusiasts enjoy cross-pollinating to enhance desirable characteristics. This is also one of Dawson’s favorite pastimes.
“In China, lithops are experiencing a boom because the middle class loves them and has enough time for hobbies. The population of the middle class in China is as big as all of the population in the U.S, and a growing number of Chinese are now enjoying lithops. It has really become a popular plant because space is often an issue,” Dawson noted as he talked about the increase in lithops popularity.
They can be grown as patio plants and then brought inside when temperatures drop. Steven Hammer, author of Lithops: Treasures of the Veld, explained that lithops will often be found by roadways in their native habitat, away from other plants. But any sunny windowsill can support many lithops plants.
“Lithops are not poisonous to humans or animals,” Hammer said. He ate one and said that “It tasted like a green pepper!”
The individual plant is about 1 to 2 centimeters in size and is somewhat like the consistency of an aloe vera plant, harder on the outside with a thick gelatinous mass on the inside.
“Part of the plant’s defense is that it can shrink almost underground for months at a time in drought periods and people literally walk over it without realizing its presence. Lithops have adapted so well to drought conditions that if you are looking for them in the wrong season, you could often miss them because they could be smaller and more shriveled, making them less visible,” Hammer said.
Growing Your Own
“One of the best things about growing lithops is that they do very well in rock and container gardens. If you are into small-scale gardening or small plants, lithops are for you!” Dawson said.
After the flowers fade and die, there is a tiny seed pod left containing approximately 200 seeds. Once it is thoroughly dry, you can grow your own lithops from seed — a particularly satisfying activity.
Steven Hammer has a green house operation called Spheroid Institute in Vista, California, where he germinates them in July. Doug Dawson, who is in the heat of Phoenix, Arizona, sprouts lithops from October to December. In theory, a grower should be able to sprout them any time of the year, according to Hammer.
Each year lithops split or divide into a new plant. “So, don’t worry if there is a blemish on the plant, or a chunk has been bitten out by an insect,” Hammer said, “because it keeps regenerating itself.”
The splitting occurs in the spring when the days are getting longer. When daylight is increasing, cut back on watering because the plant is absorbing water from the old layers that it is going to shed. If you water too much during this time, you will set the plant back in this process, and it may be susceptible to rot or may not divide correctly.
“The old leafy pair will persist if you keep watering it,” Dawson said. “It wants to absorb the old before it grows the new.”
Lithops growers should not over-water the plants, as they originate from dry, barren landscape. Dawson recommends watering the plants about an inch down into the soil every 2 to 3 weeks. However, too little water will stunt their growth. If in doubt, it is better under-water than over-water.
I moved my plants once, when I rearranged the furniture, and I put them in the shade of a bookshelf. They got longer, taller, and greener. But do not do this! They want sun. I put them back in a sunny window, and they pretty quickly went back to their original size and shape. Dawson warns against doing this too quickly, or plants could get sun burned. I was lucky that mine adapted without issues.
Lithops can live more than 40 years! They can even stay in the same planter for half that long or until the number of heads becomes so many that they crowd each other. Should your plants grow to this age, there may be a need to transplant. If the planter is big enough, you may never need to transplant them, except in the case of disease.
Lithops were not discovered by Europeans until two centuries ago. Before that, they were known only to the Khoi-Sam (Bush Men) of Africa.
According to the Flowering Stones, William Burchell was the first Western person to record anything about lithops. Burchell discovered the plant in 1811. A few other prominent researchers and collectors of lithops were J.D. Hooker in 1874 and Moritz Kurt Dinter, who was a well-known collector of succulent plants.
Nicholas Edward Brown took it upon himself to better catalog and organize some of the succulent plant species. He discovered two new species of lithops in 1912 and 1914. He came up with the name of the genus lithops from a combination of the Greek word lithos which means “stone” and another Greek word, ops, which means “face.”
Gustav Schwantes was another researcher of lithops and discovered six new species of the plant and published those in 1925 and then one more in 1927. In more recent history, Desmond T. Cole is now the predominant explorer, codifier, and taxonomist of the lithops species. He is the author of the book Lithops: Flowering Stones. Desmond Cole is known worldwide and resides in South Africa. (See the Flowering Stones website for a more complete history.)
There are fewer than 40 known species of lithops and they are widespread throughout the dry parts of South Africa and Namibia. Hammer said these plants are found on open bluffs, gravelly plains, or rocky ledges. They thrive in tough situations where only drought-loving plants could survive. They also live on the tops and bottoms of cliffs, but not on cliff faces. In other words, they thrive in well-drained, sunny places.
There have been a great many discoveries made between the 1920s and the 1950s. A lot of new roads were put in and better modes of transportation came into existence. That being the case, a lot of new territory was open to explore and new lithops were found.
The process of finding new species of lithops still continues. Eleven years ago, a new lithops was discovered and named Amicorum which means “in honor of friends.” The story goes that one of Steve Hammer’s friends, Tok Schoeman, was out with a party looking for lithops, but not looking for new ones when he came across a lithops that he could not identify. Tok e-mailed Steve a picture of this unidentified lithops asking for help in identification. Steve laughed because it was a brand new discovery! Everyone was excited. Cole was then contacted and Tok led Cole out to the locality to inspect the potentially new species in May 2004. In 2006, Cole published Lithops amicorum as a new species.
More lithops species are sure to be discovered. With the current growing interest continuing abroad and through writings like this article, I hope you have gained a curiosity in these stone-like plants and will want to begin enjoying them for yourself!
To learn how to raise these little plants in a container as simple as a red plastic cup, see: How to Grow Your Own Lithops.
Kelley Fowler is a freelance photographer and writer. She lives with her family on the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona. She is an avid gardener and assists her husband at the Diné (din-NEH) outreach ministry within the Western Agency. She also does handwriting analysis and graphology and lectures on these topics. You can find her on Instagram where she documents all things Navajo.