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Unreal houseplants

27 May 2022
Photo: Getty Images

Impersonators of pebbles and with a weird similarity to people, lithops have migrated from the desert to our living rooms. Words & Photos Liz Carlson

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that lithops (Lithops sp.) are some of the most unusual
houseplants around, so much so that people often believe they aren’t even real. Mimicking the appearance of stones has earned them the common name of living stones, and they are some of the weirdest little succulents out there. Native to South Africa and Namibia, lithops are essentially two juicy leaves mostly buried beneath the soil.

This pair of fleshy leaves look a lot like stones, with a crevice in between them. I love hearing people’s
first impression of them: hooves, faces and bums are the usual guesses. Thriving in the harsh desert
environment of Africa, lithops were discovered by accident when a botanist picked up what he believed to be a rock. The rest is history.

Lithops are very unusual compared to most of our leafy green tropical houseplants. They belong to the Aizoaceae family; they are also grouped with highly succulent species collectively known as mesembs (commonly known as ice plants). They’re known for recycling the old leaves to produce new growth and have adapted to the predictable rainfall patterns of the African desert.

Other mesembs we know and love here in New Zealand are Conophytum, Pleiospilos and Titanopsis, all of which resemble stones or pebbles. These stone plants occupy a specific space in the plant collector’s world, though new plant parents often find understanding their unusual care regimen tricky. Because they grow very slowly and thrive best when you leave them alone, they make for unique houseplants. Lithops have peculiar care requirements, which doesn’t make them more formidable to grow. Don’t be afraid! Once you nail their care regimen, these guys are super low key and easy to maintain. After working with lithops for years, I’ve found the two main factors that go into getting them to love you back is a correct watering regimen combined with heaps of sunlight. They will hate you if you keep them far from a window. Remember: they grow in the merciless desert sun of Namibia, so give them direct morning sun all the way till the afternoon, then ideally some partial shade or bright indirect light.

If your lithops appear to be growing tall with more muted colours, they are reaching for more sunlight because they aren’t getting enough. When it comes to caring for houseplants, it’s best to remember that we are mimicking their natural habitats. In the wild, lithops have a yearly watering cycle marked by harsh sunlight and little rainfall. Succulents by nature, they can easily store water for months in their leaves. Overwatering is generally a death sentence.

Unlike other houseplants, lithops go dormant in the summertime, which means you shouldn’t water them then – though you might feel you should. They will require some watering in winter and in autumn when they bloom; however, usually they can take enough water from the humidity in the air. Because of this, lithops prefer a free-draining soil mixture. I’ve found a lot of success when adding in gritty substrates like
pumice. If the soil retains too much moisture or you overwater, their delicate skins can crack and burst, with the plant rotting from below.

Once your lithops have matured past three years, they may begin to bloom with white and yellow flowers in autumn. A single flower will appear in between the crevice of the pair of leaves, like a little daisy. If you’re lucky, it might even send off a sweet aroma. They rely on insects to pollinate, and the flowers generally open in the afternoon during the brightest part of the day.

Once flowering ends, they begin to grow again. In winter, lithops will produce two new leaves that gradually absorb the two older, dying leaves. Do not remove the older leaves as they begin to shrivel up – I know it’s tempting. The two new leaves will appear from the crevice, almost as if the plant is splitting or
mutating. You can water once again when the old leaves have disappeared entirely. If you’re lucky, you might get two pairs of leaves that appear.

Once you get the hang of caring for lithops, they will continue to reward you again and again.

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