Lithops are small, stemless, succulent plants in the Aizoaceae family, indigenous to southern Africa. These strange-looking plants grow in two joined leaves resembling a pebble or craggy stone lying on its side. They can vary in color according to the species. This may range from yellowish-brown to gray, but all have the same general body plan due to convergent evolution.
So what are some interesting facts you may not know about Lithops? Instead of developing conventional flat leaves, lithops make small knobby and stone-like leaves (hence the name living stone). These plants look so much like stones that they wouldn’t look out of place in a gravel pit. They come in different colors and shapes. While some Lithops look like a pebble, others have the shape of a jelly bean. Its resemblance to stones helps Lithops blend in their surroundings. This edible succulent can live up to 50 years.
There are so many fun facts about this strange plant that will surprise you. This article will focus on some of these facts that make lithops so interesting.
1. It is the world’s most camouflaged plant.
The Lithops flower comes in all colors, but they are all tan to brown in direct sunlight. Their bodies are perfectly shaped for blending into rocks. The light color helps them blend in better in direct sunlight. If it’s too dark, they will close up their leaves to prevent water loss. They are mostly perfect for surviving in deserts because of this unique ability.
In their natural habitats in South Africa and Namibia, lithops blend in so well with the desert environment that they can be challenging to locate even for people with years of experience.
2. They survive with little or no water
If you ask anyone who has tried to cultivate lithops, the worst mistake you can make is over-watering them (or watering them at all.) Lithops thrive in the desert conditions of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and some bordering regions of Angola.
The one thing these places have in common is the rocky ground and dry conditions. While a few lithops species require up to 600mm of rainfall to survive, most of them require near zero and survive on morning dew.
They also favor extreme temperatures and grow in areas where the summers are hot, and winters are freezing, except for one species located at the coast with moderate temperatures throughout the year.
3. Lithops were discovered in 1811
In 1811, John Burchell, an English explorer, naturalist, traveler, artist, and author, picked up a strange-looking pebble from the stony ground in South Africa. He quickly discovered that the “pebble” was a plant after all. He initially named it Mesembryanthemum turbiniforme, and unfortunately, he didn’t document a detailed physical description to help us know what type of lithops it was.
Nowadays, the name Lithops turbiniformis is rarely used, although, for many years, it was used to describe what we now know as Lithops hookeri.
Several more lithops discoveries were documented as Mesembryanthemum species until 1922, when Nicholas Edward Brown split up the genus based on capsules. Lithops was then conceived and had numerous species that continued to be discovered in the decades that followed. However, the findings between different researchers were so diverse that they could not agree on the relationships between them and what clusters could be named as species. Thus, by the 1950s, little was still known about lithops taxonomically.
This changed when Naureen and Desmond Cone began to study Lithops. They discovered almost all their natural habitats and collected more than 400 samples from different lithops populations. Then, they documented them, assigning them individual identities known as the Cole number, which is still used today. Their studies culminated in a definitive book (Lithops: Flowering Stones) in 1988, which details all the species, subspecies, and varieties of the plant.
There are at least 38 species of lithops and 145 varieties. They all mostly look similar, only differing in color, markings, and texture of the body. They come in various colors, including pink, rust, brown, green, and gray. They also have a vast variation in lines, patches, and dots on the upper surface, which help them with camouflage by hiding most of the leaf surface. They could also be dimples or indentations where these markings appear.
Because of their amazing camouflage abilities, new Lithops species continue to be discovered, with the latest discovery being as recent as 2006.
4. Lithops can live up to a 50 years
Lithops grow very sluggishly and can take up to 3 years to flower. However, because of their ability to store water for months and little need for maintenance, lithops can live for up to 50 years in their natural habitat.
As a matter of fact, you can keep healthy lithops in the same pot for more than 15 years with little water and 4 to 5 hours of direct sunlight every day. Lithops are unlike most succulents in that they don’t have stems. However, their flowers bloom with a short stem.
They flower mainly from March to May in the Southern Hemisphere. All lithops are noonday flowering plants, which means that they flower at noon when the sun is shining the brightest.
5. Lithops are edible
Lithops are nonharmful to humans and pets. As a result, they are popular house plants. What most people don’t know, however, is that lithops are used as a source of food and herbal medicine in some parts of Southern Africa. There are also stories of children in the Namib desert chewing lithops to hydrate in the desert heat.
However, just because they’re safe doesn’t mean you should eat them. They aren’t too tasty anyway.
6. The name lithops comes from a Greek word
These plants belong to the plant family Mesembryanthemaceae (Aizoaceae). Nicholas Edward Brown named Lithops from two Greek words, lithos (stone) and opsis (like), for their deep resemblance to stones. The word lithops is used to describe the plants in both singular and plural forms. Local African names where lithops are found include skaappootjie and beeskloutjie, which mean cattle and horse’s hoof, respectively, for their resemblance to hoof-prints.
7. Lithops are self-sterile
This fact means that they must be pollinated to produce seeds. The seeds are contained in a hydrochastic 4-8 chambered fruiting capsule. The capsules only open when exposed to moisture, revealing tiny seeds.
In their natural habitat, rain opens the capsules and splashes the seeds up to an inch from the mother plant. Once they dry, the capsules close to protect any remaining seeds for the next rain.
How to take care of lithops
As we’ve already established, lithops are popular plants to cultivate at home. While they are naturally found in Namibia and parts of Southern Africa, their seeds are found in many stores and even online.
Lithops are relatively easy to maintain. However, there are a few mistakes you can make in their care and kill them. Here are a few things you should do when growing them.
Lithops are desert plants, so you can bet they require some sunlight to survive. There is nothing like “harsh sunlight” with these plants, so feel free to place them where there is no shade. A South or East window with lots of sunlight is the best place to have them, but remember that insufficient sunlight might cause lost patterns and elongated leaves.
Although too much sunlight is not an issue, too much heat can cause sunburn and damage your lithops’ foliage. Ensure you place them in less sunny pots or cover them up if you realize that the pots absorb too much heat in the summer.
Lithops can tolerate temperatures of 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. However, they are likely to be most healthy in temperatures between 65 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Since the plant may develop rot, it is essential to protect it from extremely low temperatures. Therefore, carry it indoors when the temperatures drop to less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Lithops require to be planted in fast-draining potting soil. They grow even better when they are planted in a cactus mix. Pebbles, sand, and anything gritty can be added to the soil to enhance drainage.
Because these plants can store water in their leaves for months, using the wrong watering cycle can lead to their death.
To avoid this, you should water them once a fortnight at most from the end of summer, when the plants are actively growing. During winter, it’s best to leave them without water as it is their dormant season when they are reserving the water in their leaves. Watering them in this period will harm their growth.
Apart from the watering schedules above, another way to determine if it’s time to water your lithops is by observing their physical conditions. For example, if you notice that they have started to pucker, wrinkle or appear to be sunken in the pot, it might be time to water them.
To wrap it up
Lithops are arguably the most intriguing succulent plants. They look like stones but bloom the most colorful flowers. They also survive in harsh conditions and live up to half a century.