Adding a few plants is a great way to add color and interest to both outdoor and indoor spaces. While many are grown for their attractive foliage or delicate flowers others are cultivated for their medicinal or culinary benefits. However if you want to add something a little bit different to your home or garden why not try cultivating a lithops?
Lithops are distinctive succulents that have evolved to resemble cloven hooves or the pebbles and rocks that litter their native, African habitats. For this reason they are often called “living stones”.
Originating in South Africa and Namibia these are slow growing plants that like to hug the ground. Lithops can take years to fill even a moderately sized pot. A distinctive looking plant, structurally these succulents are comprised of two fused leaves that connect to an underground stem, vital for conserving moisture, and long root. Some varieties appear to have only a single leaf.
Lithops are also known as living stone plants because of their unusual appearance.
Once established, if cared for correctly, from mid to late summer you will be rewarded with delicate, daisy like flowers. These blooms emerge from between the leaves of the plant and have a distinctive, spicy scent. Flowering usually precedes the emergence of a new pair of leaves.
Incredibly collectible living stones are ideal for low water gardens, or people in desert regions. Happy to grow as either a house plant or in a dry border, living stones are also easy to cultivate.
Easy to cultivate lithops are a bright, distinctive addition to any home or garden.
Living stone, split rock, pebble plant, mimicry plant, flowering stone
Full sun to partial shade
They can tolerate up to 100F but nothing under 50F
Well draining, sandy or rocky
All as a houseplant
Types of Lithops
There are over 37 different species of living stones, and at least 145 different varieties. Some of the most popular are:
First discovered in South Africa by Juanita Aucamp, after whom the variety is named, this plant loves sandy, well draining soil. Generally red or red-brown in color this variety produces delicate, pale yellow flowers. A hardy variety, it is more tolerant than other living stones of incorrect watering. This robustness makes it a popular choice for beginners and casual gardeners.
The aucampiae is a hardy variety that is a forgiving plant that is a great starting point for novices.
Originating in South Africa this species is named after Dorothea Huyssteen, who first recorded its existence. At home on the feldspar, this particular variety thrives best in grit laden soils. Lithops dorotheae has dark green or brown leaves that are mottled with cream colored speckles. All of this is complemented by the plants bright, yellow flower.
The bright yellow flower of the dorotheae variety sits in eye catching contrast to the plants plain surroundings.
Lithops optica rubra
A Namibian variety this plant is one of the few living stones that can tolerate winter watering. Proudly producing a purple or pink colored leaves, which act as a dramatic backdrop to the plant’s white or yellow flowers, this is a distinctive variety if you want to cultivate something a little bit different.
The bright red leaves are a dramatic contrast to the more stone like leaves of other varieties.
Another Namibian plant, like other varieties of living stone this plant thrives in rocky conditions and cold, desert regions. It can also thrive in limestone settings. The grey-green oval leaves of this variety are sometimes mottled with a cream pattern. As the leaves divide to flower they will take on a kidney bean shape. This change heralds the emergence of white or yellow flowers.
The yellow flowers of the fulviceps variety sit brightly against the plant’s kidney shaped leaves.
Caring for your Lithops
Lithops, as long as they are provided with the right growing conditions, need little, regular attention. Here is everything you need to know about caring for living stone plants.
A collection of living stones shows the immense variety of this attractive plant.
Living stone plants like to be placed in a south or west facing location. This will ensure that the plant gets lots of light.
In warmer climates, where the living stone plants can be planted outside, chose a location where they will receive lots of morning sun and some shade in the afternoon. If you live in a location that enjoys warm summers and cold winters, plant our lithops in a pot or container. This will enable you to relocate the plant indoors, either in your home or into a greenhouse, during the cooler months.
Indoor living stones can be sheltered by hanging a sheer curtain or net curtain in the window. This will provide some protection for the plant while still allowing it access to light.
Placing the living stone plant in an area with good air circulation will also help the plant to stay healthy.
A full sun plant, living stones need between 4-5 hours of direct light each day to produce their distinctive coloring. If your living stone doesn’t receive enough light then its color may fade. In cooler climates the plants will require more sun, while in hotter climates providing some afternoon shade will allow the living stones time to cool down and prevent the leaves from becoming sunburnt or damaged.
If you are growing your living stones as houseplants then make sure that you regularly rotate the pot so that all areas of the plant receives enough light. Should you be unable to identify a location with enough natural light there are ways of providing artificial light. A grow lamp or normal standard lamp is a great way of boosting the amount of light your plant receives.
Finally, if your lithops has been indoors over winter, gradually reintroduce the plant to more light during the spring, effectively hardening it off. This gradual exposure prevents the leaves from becoming sunburned or scarred.
The more light the plant receives the richer its coloring.
An african native, living stone plants dislike the cold weather. While these plants do best in temperatures between 65-80𝇈F they will grow in outside this temperature range. However, ideally the temperature should never fall below 50𝇈F.
While lithops can tolerate cooler conditions for a short period of time they should never be left outside in temperatures below 40𝇈F. If you are in a cooler climate, grow your living stone plants in pots or containers. This will enable you to place them in a greenhouse or your home when temperatures begin to fall.
In warmer climates, lithops will tolerate temperatures over 90𝇈F, but only for short periods. If you are growing your living stone plants in a warmer climate try to position them so that they are exposed to the morning sun and shaded from the high temperatures of the afternoon.
A greenhouse is a great way to help maintain constant temperature levels.
Knowing how much water to give living stone plants can be tricky. Originating from an area where droughts are common these tough little plants have evolved to survive with as little as an inch of water a year. This is because the fleshy leaves of the plant are able to act as reservoirs, storing surprisingly large amounts of water. This water storing ability enables the plant to survive in extreme drought conditions. It also means that the plant requires little watering.
Your watering regime will vary depending on the time of year.
Living stone plants tend to grow in the spring and fall. During these seasons you will have to water the plant. While it will need water the plant, even when growing, won’t require much, regular watering. Once every 10 days will be fine. For some plants this may even be too much.
In humid areas don’t be surprised if your living stone plants require no, or hardly any, water during the spring and fall. Many species of living stone plants are able to take the majority of the moisture they need from humid air and, if outside, the morning dew.
If you are not sure whether to water, wait until the top 4-5 inches of soil has completely dried out. To gauge how dry the soil is stick your finger into it. If it comes out dry then you can safely water the plant. A more scientific method is to use a soil moisture gauge.
As living stone plants dislike too much water any that are located outside will need to be protected when it rains. Even a short rain shower can dampen the soil around the taproot too much, causing rot or decay. If you are unable to take your living stones inside then cover the pots with a plant cloche.
During the summer months the heat can cause living stone plants to enter their dormant period. You will only need to water during this period if the leaves start to wrinkle or look like they are drying out. Summer watering should be done in the early morning. Give the plant only a tiny bit of water, even a couple of drops is enough to restore the plant.
Even a light shower may overwhelm a living stone plant and cause root rot or significant damage.
During the winter living stone plants will again enter a dormant or semi-dormant period. As during the summer, you will not need to water the plant during this period.
When plants require little water it can be easy to overwater. If you are unsure how much to give remember less is more. It is better to underwater the plant than overwater it and cause lasting damage.
Lithops naturally thrive in sandy, granite heavy, well draining soils that don’t retain much water. Unlike many other plants they also prefer poor soil to rich soil.
A well draining, cactus blend of potting mix, that is rich in grit, is ideal. Alternatively, if you wish to make your own, a mix of 50% soil or compost and 50% grit (pumice, sand, perlite) will provide a well draining home for the plant.
Lithops do best in sandy or granite heavy soils.
A low maintenance plant living stones don’t require fertilizing.
However, some people like to apply a small amount of heavily diluted cactus fertilizer that is rich in potassium and low in nitrogen, to the plant just before the flowering season begins. This can encourage flowering but is not necessary.
If you do decide to feed the plant don’t apply the feed to the leaves because this can burn or damage them.
Lithops will happily flower without any fertilizing.
Living stone plants require little pruning. Once the older leaves on the plant grow papery, meaning that all the moisture they held has been absorbed by the plant, they can be removed. These older leaves will be replaced by young, fresh leaves.
Lithops grow slowly, it may take over 10 years before the plant outgrows its pot. However if you choose to divide the plant you will need to know how to repot it. Some people also like to repot plants soon after purchasing them. This is how to repot a living stone plant:
Select a clean, deep pot that will be able to hold the long taproot. While 3” should be fine, a 5” or 6” pot is ideal. This larger pot, will give the taproot more room to grow without becoming deformed.
The pot can be either clay, terracotta or plastic. Clay pots have better air circulation than the waterproof, plastic pots. Clay or terracotta pots are also porous, meaning that the soil is better able to dry out between waterings. If you don’t have a clay or terracotta pot then a plastic one will be fine. Just make sure that the soil has fully dried out before watering to avoid it becoming waterlogged.
Living stone plants will happily grow in a pot for many years.
The pot that you select should have drainage holes in the bottom. This will help the soil to dry out and prevent the plant from developing rot. If your pot hasn’t got any drainage holes it is a simple task to drill in a few yourself.
Place some well draining cactus potting soil in the pot, see the soil section above for the ideal soil requirements. Position the living stone in the pot and, when you are happy with its positioning, fill the pot with more fresh soil mix.
Once filled the leaf of the plant should sit just above the soil. When repotting be careful not to damage the taproot. A damaged taproot can seriously harm your plant and stunt growth.
Topdress the soil with gravel or small rocks. This helps to replicate the living stone plants natural environment.
Once repotted the living stone plants will not need to be transferred again for at least 4 years. If you have planted a division you should wait even longer.
Growing your own Lithops
Lithops can be successfully grown from seed. However it can take up to three years for the plant to reach full maturity and start flowering. For those of you who don’t want to wait this long, adult living stone plants are readily available.
Harvesting Lithops Seeds
If you want to start your living stone plant collection from seed, seeds are easily purchased or you can harvest your own.
To harvest the seed you will first need to pollinate the flowers. Living stone plants don’t self-fertilize so you will have to do this for them. This is easily done even if you don’t have a specialised plant pollinator.
With a small paintbrush, makeup brush or Q-Tip brush the flower, gathering pollen. You can then brush this pollen onto another living stone flower, pollinating the plant. Pollinating more than one flower increases your chances of producing some successful seeds. .
When the flowers die they will leave behind seed pods. Remove the pods and carefully open them to access the seeds.
Sowing Lithops Seeds
Fill a clean pot with soil as for repotting. Carefully sprinkle the seeds over the surface of the soil and cover with a fine layer of sand. Keep the sand lightly moist until germination occurs. Use a fine spray to water, alternatively a plastic bottle with some holes pierced in the cap will produce a gentle spray.
Cover the pot with a plastic wrap or place in a propagator, this will help it to retain moisture and encourage germination. If you don’t have a propagator a homemade option, made from a plastic food container like these, is just as effective as commercial options.
The pot should be placed in a warm light area. The temperature should ideally be between 65-80𝇈F. A heat mat can help to maintain temperature levels.
Germination times will vary depending on the conditions. The process can take anywhere from 2 to 12 weeks.
Once germinated remove the pot from its propagator or bag. Reduce watering gradually as the seedlings grow.
Once the seedlings start to crowd each other and are big enough to handle, repot them into their own pots. Living stones are slow growing plants so this could take a few months to a year.
Pots should be place in a light location. Care for the seedlings as you would adult living stone plants.
Growing living stones from seed is a long, time consuming process.
As the living stone plant gets older it will naturally begin to divide itself, one plant will produce 2 pairs of leaves. Both sets will be attached to the same taproot. When this happens you can divide the plant, however lithops can continue growing undivided, producing, eventually, as many as ten plants on the same tap root.
To divide the plant carefully remove the living stone plant from its pot. Brush off any soil from the taproot. Take the time to examine the leaves and the taproot and decide how best to make your division.
With a sterile, sharp knife, pocket knife or razor blade cut the leaf pairs, a good amount of taproot should still be attached. This taproot is vital for the plants continued survival. The smaller, feeder roots are less necessary as they will quickly regrow. If you are concerned about the sharpness of your knife a knife sharpener is a really useful tool to have in the kitchen.
Once separated repot the living stone plants as described above.
Pests, Diseases and Other Common Problems
Generally living stone plants are easy to care for. However there are a few potential issues that you need to be aware of.
Occasionally spider mites will inhabit the space in the crevices between the leaves. The most visible sign of a spider mite infestation is the appearance of white spots on the surface of the leaves of the plant.
Gently misting the leaves with a product such as Mite-X should remove most infestations.
Thrips, Mealybugs and Aphids can also, occasionally, target living stone plants. Attacks by these pests are rare and easily dealt with by an application of insecticidal soap.
Spider mites can be an irritating pest but they are easily dealt with.
If you are growing your living stone outside then snails or slugs can, sometimes, damage the leaves. Slug pellets, bait or other deterrents can all be used to protect your living stone. If you love your coffee, old coffee grounds are a great, natural slug and snail deterrent that doesn’t harm the environment or other animals.
Root knot nematodes can warp the roots of your lithops, but rarely cause serious damage. This is largely because root knot nematodes struggle in dry soil. Using a well-draining soil mixed with grit will keep them away.
Finally mice are often attracted to the leaves of the living stone. A mousetrap or cloching outdoor specimens will offer some protection.
As living stone plants usually grow in sandy soils they tend not to fall victim to soil-borne fungal diseases. They also rarely develop other fungal diseases such as powdery mildew.
Most problems are caused by overwatering. This can lead to leaf damage or rot. Too much water can cause leaves to swell and burst, allowing bacterial infections to develop. Exposure to colder temperatures can also cause rotting so keep your living stone warm, try not to damage the leaves and water it only when necessary.
If you notice the leaves becoming discolored or wrinkled it is a sign that the plant is not receiving enough water. After watering the leaves will return to normal within a couple of days.
Finally living stone plants can sometimes suffer from etiolation. This is when the plant stretches or warps away from the soil in an attempt to reach the sun. Etiolation can be cured by gradually introducing the plant to more light. While this won’t immediately fix the problem, during the next dormancy cycle the lithops new growth will form against the soil.
If you are unable to provide enough natural light then a grow lamp will provide a good alternative. You don’t have to purchase anything too fancy, a regular standard lamp will do the job just fine.
Lithops are an attractive and unusual plant that will add interest to any space.
Lithops are an easy to grow if unusual succulent. Ideal for dry, arid gardens lithops will also thrive as a house plant. Once established, and properly cared for, you will be rewarded with a reliable, showy plant that adds interest to any space.