Caring for Your Succulent: Lithops
Discovered in the early 19th century when what looked like a small pebble turned out to be a never-before-seen plant, these “living stones” are one of the most unique succulents. Native to Africa, Lithops’ smooth leaves feature intricate patterns and colors including brown, gray, green, rust, and even pink, and can survive for over half a century when provided with the right conditions. Their stone-like size and shape is an adaptation meant to allow them to grow undetected in the mountains and deserts of southern Africa, so as to evade being eaten by grazing animals.
As much of the plant actually lives underground, you can expect your Lithops to stay compact – less than 2 inches tall. Over time it will begin to form clusters of its characteristic leaf pairs, coming to resemble a bed of small stones. At any given time, each plant will possess only one set of leaves, which must die back before the new set can emerge from within the old, making Lithops one of the most dynamic succulents out there!
In the fall, a happy Lithops plant will send up a daisy-like flower, in hues of white, yellow, or orange, from the fissure between its two leaves. The flower will open in the morning, closing as the light fades later in the day.
Despite Lithops’ unique growth cycle, it is important to remember that Lithops are a slow-growing plant, and should be allowed to establish their root systems for at least two years before repotting. If you choose to repot, take care not to damage the plant’s central taproot, as it is crucial for its survival.
Lithops broad and fleshy leaves sport windowpane-like patterns on their top surface, which allows light to filter in to the rest of the plant. As Lithops have adjusted to the harsh sunlight characteristic of southern Africa, be sure to give them plenty of bright light. Insufficient light can cause the plant to stretch, or etiolate, and can also result in the loss of the unique patterns on the tops of their leaves. Though they are able to withstand intense heat, Lithops can still sunburn if they are not properly acclimated to direct afternoon sun.
It is also important to note that Lithops are not cold hardy, and should be brought indoors before any chance of frost.
Lithops can be tricky when it comes to water, as they require even less watering than the average succulent – in fact, too much water can cause their leaves to swell and even burst! As such, be sure to plant them in porous and well-draining soil in a pot that allows for proper airflow, such as a clay pot with a generous drainage hole, so that the soil does not stay wet for long stretches of time. Further, Lithops require water only during the spring through fall months, and you should stop watering in the winter months as soon as the flowers and old leaves begin to shrivel. At this point, the plant will begin to produce new leaves, drawing from the water stores it has established in its thick leaves and underground stem over the preceding months. In the spring the new leaves will emerge, and you can gently remove the dead older leaves and resume your regular routine of watering until the soil is moist (not saturated), only once the soil has had a chance to completely dry. Watering during the winter months may be tempting, but it is not useful to the plant, and will put them at risk of rot.
While Lithops can tolerate some humidity, their native desert environment means they have no adaptations for coping with a very humid environment long-term. This means that Lithops are most likely to thrive in drier household spaces, as opposed to bathrooms or kitchens.
Because of their slow-growing nature, Lithops divisions should not be attempted until the plant is well established – typically even longer than the two-year waiting period for repotting. Because of this, it is more common to start Lithops from seed, though it can take quite some time before the resulting parent plant will take on its classic stone-like appearance.
Seeds can be purchased or gathered from the plants’ flowers when they bloom in the fall. 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 Lithops plant.