Also known as mesembs, ‘mimicry plants’ are true masters of disguise, having adapted to harsh growing environments by coming to resemble elements of these very habitats. To the untrained eye, even a large swath of these plants could be practically invisible amidst the rocks and stones they aim to imitate, becoming apparent only when they come into bloom each year!
What is a Mimicry Succulent?
Several thousand plant species qualify as mesembs, but within the succulent family only a handful of species truly stand out. Among them are favorites such as Titanopsis calcarea, or ‘Jewel Plant,’ whose rough, concrete-like leaves resemble the rugged and gritty sand of their native South African habitat, or the charming Fenestraria aurantiaca, or ‘Baby Toes,’ that grows largely underneath the soil so that its rounded, low-growing leaves resemble a cluster of smooth stones rather than a tasty snack for grazing herbivores. By maintaining the majority of their mass underground, these and other mimicry succulents afford themselves a great deal of protection – but this adaptation necessitated another in the form of translucent “windowpanes” on the tips of each leaf, which allow light to penetrate farther into the plant, thus facilitating adequate photosynthesis.
Caring for Mimicry Succulents
Given the harshness of their native environments, bringing these plants into our cushy homes presents a few challenges. The most distinctive elements of caring for mimicry succulents are three-fold: high light, low water, and low humidity. Some of the most drought tolerant plants in existence, the biggest threat to the health of these succulent varieties is overwatering. Indeed, some mimicry succulents prefer not to be watered at all for months at a time, instead drawing upon their own water reserves to produce their new growth. Both Lithops salicola, whose flattened growth habit and distinct leaf patterning resemble pebbles more than leaves, and Pleiospilos nelii 'Royal Flush,’ a type of split rock succulent so named because of its unique ability to camouflage against the granite rock of its natural habitat, exemplify this low water demand, as these varieties and others of the same genus want to be watered only in the spring and fall, with completely dry soil during the remainder of the year. Thus, a good rule of thumb for most mimicry succulents is: when in doubt, don’t water!
The one exception to this nearly no water rule is the incredibly unique Faucaria ‘Tiger Jaws.’ With a dense clumping growth pattern, this plant happily supports more than a pair or two of leaves at a time and, while it should still be watered sparingly, can be treated more like a typical succulent than either Lithops or Pleiospilos. While its long and pointed leaves resemble the open jaws of a large cat, the ‘spikes’ are actually soft and harmless, designed to help direct ambient moisture in towards the body of the plant in its dry native landscape.
This exception aside, however, one thing that all mimicry succulents do have in common is their need for minimal organic matter, such as peat, in their soil mix. Instead, they prefer an already fast-draining cactus mix supplemented with gritty and porous elements, such as course sand, pumice, or perlite. They also require pots with excellent drainage, and deeper pots (at least 3-4 inches) are best able to accommodate the plants’ longer taproots.
In terms of feeding mimicry plants, you shouldn’t plan to fertilize these succulents regularly – if at all – as they are designed to thrive in austere conditions, and excess nitrogen can cause them to rapidly put on flabby growth, which will predispose the plant to rot.
Propagating Mimicry Succulents
Because of their slow-growing nature, ‘mimicry succulents’ should not be divided until the plant is well established and has begun to produce a substantial clump of leaf pairs. Because of this requirement, it is more common to start ‘mimicry succulents’ from seed than it is for many other succulent varieties, though it is worth noting that it can take quite some time before the resulting parent plant will take on its classic stone-like appearance.
Seeds can be purchased from a reputable grower or gathered from the plants’ flowers when they bloom come into bloom each year. Sprinkle the seeds over the surface of a fast-draining soil mix, and keep lightly moist until germination occurs. After that, begin to gradually decrease the frequency of watering, as you would for a more developed ‘mimicry’ plant, and make sure that the seedlings have access to adequate light.