Lithops (2004)

PhotoBy Chris Deem (March 2004)

In the rock-strewn deserts of South Africa and Namibia, you will find lithops, interesting members of the carpetweed family, Aizoacea. That is, of course, if they are in bloom. Otherwise, their small size, coloration and tendency to grow close to the ground help them avoid detection in their natural habitat.

Lithops are highly succulent plants with inverted cone-shaped bodies consisting of two thick, fleshy leaves, which grow together except for a small cleft. The coloration of their leaf faces varies considerably, even within a species. Lithops can tolerate intense heat and bright light, and require very little watering.

In our homes, lithops thrive in bright light, which improves their coloring. Shaded areas tend to make the plants soft and likely to rot. It is important that these plants are never left standing in water. Overwatering can make them overgrow or even burst. Also, stagnant, very hot air is harmful. A small fan can help circulate air.

Winter is lithops’ rest period. Every year lithop heads produce a new pair of leaves. The new heads emerge from the center of the old leaves. At this time, the plants must rest and should not be watered. Resume watering after the old pair of leaves becomes thin and leathery. Remove the old leaves with your fingers or tweezers to avoid rot.

Lithops produce a large (for their body) white or yellow flower usually in late fall. The yellow flower varieties usually bloom first.

It is said that lithops are easy to propagate from seed. I have never personally grown them from seed, but if you do, make sure to place them in bright light to stimulate germination. The seed capsules develop after the plants have flowered, then the flower dries to a hard seed bud.

Yellow-blooming lithops species include L. bromfieldii, L. helmutii and L. otzeniana. White-blooming lithops include L. bella and L. lesliei. One of the most popular plants in this species, L. optica-rubra, has a purple-red head.