Stones Get a Life
From Houseplants are Houseguests
Remember pet rocks? That fad of the 70’s?
People actually spent money for a rock that was the lowest maintenance possible pet. It didn’t eat or drink anything, it did not need to be taken out although it loved to ride around in your pocket, and it didn’t bark at night. It never complained when left alone, and was always there when you needed it.
If you loved pet rocks you will love “Living Stones,” plants that are almost as trouble free, and that are the closest rock imitators in the plant world. They blend into their stony habitat so skillfully that one is hard pressed to spot them in the wild. And when they bloom, it’s like a sci-fi experience. Talk about weird!
The name Lithops comes from the Greek “lithos” stone, and “opsis” face, and the plants are commonly called “Living Stones” because that is exactly what they look like. In the plant world, these little critters may have the highest IQ and the best ability to predict danger and defend themselves. When it comes to survival of the fittest, Lithops win hands down.
Members of the succulent family Mesembryanthemaceae, thankfully called Mesembs for short, they are found in arid, desolate areas of South Africa and Namibia where they have had to go to great lengths to survive. They do this by having reduced themselves to a very small size that is totally devoted to water storage. Two succulent leaves, smooth and low to the ground, are all that can be seen and even they can shrink down almost below the pebbly surface if extreme conditions warrant evasive action. Masters of camouflage, these leaves over the centuries have developed markings and colors that closely resemble the patterns and colors in the stones surrounding them, thereby contributing different characteristics to varieties. Even grazing animals, desperate for water during periods of drought, can easily pass them by.
There is a little fissure between the two leaves containing the meristem, the growth cells of the plant. Here the taproot grows downward to seek out whatever water it can. From the same meristem, and when the Lithops is about three years old, reproduction will begin. Following the seasonal rains, the fissure will separate and a bud will grow upward to produce a flower and a new pair of leaves. Watching the flower emerge from the “stones” is truly one of the most amazing sights in nature! When the new leaves mature and grow fleshy, drawing their water and nutrients from the older leaves, the latter shrivel away and die off.
From this description, it is easy to see that Lithops can be ideal pet stones in your houseplant collection. Their needs are simple, but important to understand. They have been smart enough to stay alive under certain conditions that must be provided in order to have them think that they are back in their native land.
Light and water are the key ingredients to success. They require 4 to 5 hours of direct sunlight per day, morning sun is best. If grown in a south-facing window, they should be shaded or given filtered light during the afternoon. In the spring, after a winter of less intense light, they should be reintroduced to direct sunlight gradually in order to prevent sunburn. Think of them as people, and be sensible about a sudden shock.
Watering Lithops is one time when we should not think of them as people, at least not normal people who need water. Basically, they are watered during spring and fall. They go dormant during the summer months, and should be given only enough water to prevent them from shriveling. In the fall, after the dormancy period, Lithops begin their flowering cycle and should be watered deeply in order to get the growth going. Water enough to get it down to the taproot, just as Mother Nature would do with her seasonal rains. Allow the soil to dry out almost completely between waterings. If the soil stays damp around the plant, it is likely to lead to rot.
After the fall growth cycle, withhold water altogether to allow the new leaves to draw their water naturally from the old leaves, and to allow the old leaves to shrivel away. Mist occasionally during this period. Once spring approaches, you can begin again to water gradually. With summer and the period of dormancy, gradually withhold water and you are back to the beginning of the cycle.
Lithops are easily cultivated from seed, which can be extracted from the seed capsule. It is available also from several internet sources. Sprinkle the tiny seeds directly into a well-drained sandy medium, perhaps sand mixed with a fine gravel. Leave it uncovered, and mist just enough to prevent the seeds from drying out. When the seedlings are large enough, transplant them into their permanent pots. Provide extra drainage capability by adding one part sand (not beach sand) to two parts of your soil mix, and plant them in pots deep enough to accommodate their taproots. Set a few pebbles or stones on the surface of the soil for company and to give the Lithops someone to imitate, and sprinkle a light layer of sand or thin gravel over the surface. Obviously, they will lend themselves very well to dish gardens accompanied by stones and other succulents.
Just like pet rocks, these little creatures are irresistible. They are so cute, and funny, that they will win your heart. Run your fingers over their smooth surfaces once in a while to let them know that you know that they’re alive. They love to be petted!
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