Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Lithops

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

As long as I can remember, I've loved learning about nature. As a young girl, I remember checking out large stacks of books from the children's section at our local library about any kind of plant or animal I could get my hands on.

When I was a little older, as a freshman in high school, I recall a book on cacti and succulents that triggered my plant collecting instincts. There were so many kinds of cacti and succulents out there, and I found that several local stores carried small plants that were very affordable on my babysitting salary. An obsession was born. I even experimented with starting cacti from seed. I still have several of those seedlings, which are still fairly small, even though they are almost 20 years old!

A plant that caught my eye during my "cacti phase" was the genus Lithops, commonly called living stones. They are more accurately called a succulent, since they don't have the spines characteristic of cacti. Photos of these plants fascinated me instantly. They literally look like stones. I had to have (at least) one. But for years I never saw them for sale anywhere.

Flash forward a few years, and with the invention of internet shopping, I found a website that sold Lithops. But I never got around to ordering my coveted plants. I thought they were too expensive-- a pot with three tiny plants cost around $15.

Last fall I struck the jackpot when I found Lithops for sale locally, at a much more affordable price of $4 for two plants. I had originally been amazed at these little plants just seeing their pictures, but in person they were even more fascinating.

Each plant is composed of only two fleshy leaves which are very thick and fused together at the base of the plant. The plant is very flat overall, only about one half to one inch above ground. The tops of the leaves form two kidney or half-circle shapes with a fissure down the center. Flowers and new leaves emerge from this fissure.

Though they are plants which contain the green pigment chlorophyll used for photosynthesis, most Lithops do not appear green. The parts of the plant above ground are shades of grey, brown, and cream, some with reddish flecks, lines and other patterns. Some Lithops may be a grayish green, but none are bright green. Despite their coloring, the pigments allow light to penetrate the leaves and reach the chlorophyll deep inside the leaf essential for photosynthesis.

Around 1810, William John Burchell, botanist and explorer was in southern Africa and observed what he thought at first was just some pebbles. Further examination revealed what he had was a small plant. The coloring and flat form of the plant he found led to their name Lithops, which literally translated from the Greek means stone like (lithos= stone, ops= like). There are over 200 species of Lithops known.

Lithops grow in extremely arid climates with very little rainfall for most of the year. This native habitat must be kept in mind when growing Lithops in the home. Overwatering is a death sentence for this plant which is used to hot dry conditions. Let the planting media dry completely between waterings.

The timing of watering is also crucial. Lithops should not be watered from the fall until the spring. This cool part of the year is their natural dormant period. Watering during this time will only promote rot. During the dormant period it is natural for Lithops to produce a new pair of leaves, which will emerge from the fissure between the old leaves. The old leaves should gradually shrivel and die. If they remain plump this is a sign of overwatering.

Lithops need as much light as you can provide in the home. A south facing window is perfect. Plenty of light in the spring and summer months will increase the likelihood of flowering in the fall months. A single yellow, white, or sometimes pink flower will emerge from the fissure between the leaves.

So far my Lithops are alive and well. They flowered soon after I bought them, and are producing a new set of leaves as I write this. I am hopeful that they will be a unique part of my plant collection for years to come.

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