Learn About Lithops Plant History

By Bonnie Grant | January 26, 2017
Image by Teenoo
by Bonnie Grant
January 26, 2017

Succulents have always been my favorite group of plants and none has charmed me as much as Lithops. What are Lithops? Upon first viewing them, they seem to be more rock than plant, but be assured they are 100% botanical. Also called living stone plants, Lithops have adapted amazingly to their wild range and have unique features that allow them to survive in harsh regions. The history of Lithops starts with a little background on succulent adaptations and plant needs in hot, arid South Africa.

Lithops Plant History

There are more types of succulents than can be counted. This group of plants can survive in extremely cold, inhospitable areas all the way to dry, desert climates. Lithops have become adept at surviving in the latter type of climate. These tiny plants hug the ground to avoid sunburn, predation and evaporation of scarce moisture. When first confronted with one, it really does appear to be a small rock of some kind, which leads to its many names such as Stoneface, Pebble Plant, Flowering Stone and Mimicry Plant.

As colorful as the names are, the plant itself is a marvel. Modern Lithops plant history has placed it in the family Mesembs, a group of at least 1,900 species of plants, of which Lithops represents 37 species.

Lithops develop into two mirror sections. They bisect easily into nearly identical halves, each of which is a leaf. These leaves are heavily padded like thornless cactus pads and come in a myriad of earth tones. Essentially, they resemble a rock that has been split down the middle and bear all manner of speckling and marbling to blend in with their surroundings.

Living stone plants have no stem as we think of it; instead, the plants are fused to the ground through their taproot. Over time, usually after 3 to 5 years, the plants produce strikingly showy flowers, usually golden yellow. In many species, they will grow several more leaves and become a rock-like cluster. Some species of Lithops can live more than 40 years.

The history of Lithops as a houseplant began in 1811 when John Burchell found these living rocks on a visit to South Africa. He subsequently wrote about them in 1822 and 1824. Modern cultivation probably started with Moritz Kurt Dinter, an exotic plant collector affiliated with La Mortola Gardens. He was a plant explorer who logged uncounted miles in pursuit of unique specimens, which were sent to Europe. During this time, the plant was classed as Mesembryanthemum and by 1914, it was divided into a more accurate genus, and Lithops was created. Many collectors followed and over time discoveries have added to the number of species in the group. It is now a popular houseplant but excessive harvesting has diminished much of the variety and range Lithops once occupied.

Growing Lithops Plants

Like most succulents, growing Lithops plants is quite easy provided a few conditions are met for the plant’s health. The best mixture is 50% pumice and well-draining soil in bright light. Lithops are adapted to low fertility soil and do not need fertilizer. In fact, the key element to healthy plants is the watering cycle.

In winter, plants are not actively growing and should be watered sparingly, just barely enough to keep roots alive. Once spring arrives and photoperiods are longer, the plant is encouraged to remove itself from dormancy and begin growth. Increase water slightly but be cautious to keep the roots from remaining soggy. When soil is dry to the touch an inch down, it is time to water.

After flowering, taper off watering the plant. Plants grown under light will likely need a bit more water. Other than that, growing Lithops plants is remarkably easy and rewarding. Try a little dish garden in the home where curious guests can get a good gander at these remarkable plants.

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