Lithops plants are very unusual succulents that are unlike any other plant you will find. They are commonly called ‘Living stones’ for obvious reasons, as at first glance they look just like pebbles, and, in fact, this helps to protect them in the wild. In their natural environment in the South African mountains, these clever plants are able to adapt their colors and patterns to mimic the look of the stones around them, allowing them to blend into their habitat in an almost camouflage way, protecting them from getting eaten by animals.
As succulents, they are very low maintenance and easy to care for, needing almost no attention at all other than a spot in bright sunlight and a very occasional watering. They have a lifespan of around half a century and reward us each year with a flower blooming in the fall. This quirky plant has two bulbous leaves that store moisture to enable the plant to survive long periods of drought. The pair of leaves are separated by a slit, and it is from this central slit that an annual flower emerges.
The Lithops also produces one new set of leaves each year. The new leaves grow out from the central slit between the old leaves, and as they mature, the old set of leaves will shrivel up and die. When the old set of leaves appear to be devoid of any moisture, you can remove them. This annual replacement of the leaves means that while the plant does keep growing new life, it never gets much bigger and can, therefore, remain in the same pot for many years, even several decades.
The Lithops plant, which is referred to as Lithops whether you are talking about a singular or plural plant, makes an excellent houseplant but can also survive outside in hot climates. There are many different types, but they are all easily distinguishable as living stones.
Lithops Plant Overview
|Origin||South Africa, Namibia, Botswana|
|Scientific Name||Lithops spp.|
|Common Names||Living stone, lithops, split rock plant, pebble plant|
|Light||Full sun with partial shade|
|Humidity||Tolerates humidity, prefers low humidity|
|Toxicity||Non-toxic to people and pets|
Caring for your Lithops Plant
In their natural habitat Lithops grow in extreme drought conditions where very little rain falls all year round. Because of this, they have not adapted capabilities to deal with even moderate amounts of water, and so require very little watering when kept in homes or gardens. The Lithops’ whole structure is based around surviving on minimal water. It’s fleshy leaves, which appear more like stones, are filled with moisture to help the plant survive on its own without the need for external water sources.
The watering schedule for your Lithops will vary according to the season. These plants grow during fall and spring, and so these are the times during which they will need some water. Although the Lithops will need moisture during their growing seasons, the amount they need is very minimal. Some Lithops will absorb much of their required moisture from the air around them if it is humid. During the growing seasons, you can add a little water around every two weeks, though pay close attention to the condition of the Lithops and its soil more so than the date. Only add water if the soil has entirely dried out, and add just enough to moisten it slightly; do not saturate it.
Signs that your Lithops needs more water are rare, but they can happen. If the leaves start to wrinkle and look as though they are drying out, then you should add a little water. Don’t panic and overwater the plant to try to correct the wrinkled leaves, even a tiny amount of water should be enough for the leaves to plump back up and the plant to continue growing as normal. During summer, you will not need to water your Lithops at all. This will seem unnatural to many plant growers as our plants typically require more water during the summer heat, but this is not the case for Lithops. The heat of the summer causes them to go dormant, and they will not require any moisture at all during this time.
In winter, the Lithops will enter a state of semi-dormancy, and again will not require any watering at all. Overwatering is the number one way to kill a Lithops plant, so hold back as much as possible when watering to ensure this doesn’t happen. Depriving your plant of water will be much less troublesome than giving it too much water, so always err on the side of caution to prevent the plant from rotting.
If you are keeping Lithops outside in your garden, then it is vital to keep track of rainfall. Dry summers will be an ideal climate to keep Lithops plants outside, but if your local area experiences storms or periods of rain then you will need to bring your Lithops inside to prevent it from getting too much water.
The ideal temperature range for growing Lithops is 65º F- 80º F, which is why Lithops work so well as indoor plants as the average room temperature falls within this range. Lithops cannot tolerate cold temperatures, and so you will need to make sure your home is heated during cooler times of the year, even if you go away on vacation or keep your Lithops in an unused and therefore unheated area of the home.
If temperatures fall below 50º F, there is a high chance your Lithops plant will not survive. If you are growing your Lithops outside, you will need to bring it inside when temperatures drop below 50º F. In its natural environment in South Africa, temperatures remain warm all year round, so these plants have not adjusted to cold conditions and will not tolerate frost. Exposure to frost can damage the leaves beyond repair, even causing them to rupture. Protect your Lithops from this possibility by ensuring they are kept in warm conditions throughout the year.
As they typically grow in the desert, these plants can tolerate extreme heat much more so than cold. They can survive temperatures over 90º F, but in conditions such as this, they would ideally be protected with some afternoon shade.
Lithops need plenty of direct light to thrive and in order to maintain their colored markings. In their natural environment, they would be subject to full sun throughout the day, though just five hours of sun a day will be enough to sustain your Lithops at home. If you are keeping your plant indoors, then place it in a brightly lit window and rotate it occasionally to ensure all parts of the plant are receiving equal amounts of light. If you don’t rotate the Lithops, then it can start trying to reach out in order to get more sun, which results in a misshapen plant.
If your Lithops us kept outside, then the amount of light it gets will depend on the temperature. In very hot conditions, the plant will benefit from some afternoon shade to allow it to cool down, whereas cooler climates, such as those along the coastline, will be able to tolerate full sun for the duration of the day. Plenty of light is essential for Lithops to allow them to remain colorful. A sure sign of a lack of sunlight is if the markings on your plant begin to fade or appear less pronounced.
Lithops can tolerate humidity in small amounts. It absorbs moisture from the air to fulfill its water requirements, but as it needs so little water, consistent high humidity will cause problems for the plant, providing it with too much moisture. As such, it is not an appropriate plant to keep in high humidity rooms, such as kitchens and bathrooms.
In their native environment, Lithops grow amongst sand or other natural, gritty materials that do not retain water. They need to be kept in a growing medium which will drain quickly because otherwise will be at risk of sitting amongst unwelcome moisture in the event of rainfall. At home, the best option for soil would be a cactus mix. Alternatively, you could make your own soil mix from materials you already have. Blend half potting soil with half sand or a similar gritty option such as perlite. Infertile soil would always be preferable to rich soil, as fertile soils tend to retain moisture, which goes against the Lithops plants needs.
Lithops do not need to be fertilized and will thrive perfectly well without being fed. When growing in the wild, Lithops have access to very little in the way of nutrients, if any at all, and so are well equipped to function without them. That being said, some people do add a little fertilizer to their Lithops soil just before they are due to bloom in order to help produce bigger and better flowers. If you wish to do this, add a small amount of very diluted cactus fertilizer to the soil prior to flowering. I
f your aim is to encourage blooming, then opt for a fertilizer with a high potassium content. As with watering, err on the side of caution when feeding your Lithops. They are accustomed to surviving with very little care or intervention and can suffer from fertilizer burn very easily. If you are unsure about which fertilizer or how much fertilizer to apply to your Lithops plant, then the safest thing to do would be to not use any at all. Your Lithops plant will be able to thrive even without the addition of fertilizer.
Lithops will happily remain in the same pot for several decades, so repotting is a rare occurrence. The most common reason for repotting is to divide Lithops for propagation or to give them a bigger pot to allow space for clusters of Lithops to grow. If you do decide to repot, be very careful when handling the root system, as the taproot is essential to the plant’s survival. It is the main source of water for the plant, so if it becomes damaged, the Lithops plant will die.
When choosing a pot for your Lithops, the most important thing is having good depth. A minimum depth of 3 or 4 inches is required to allow the taproot to grow vertically and prevent it from growing around the sides of the pot. Use a cactus soil mix or create your own gritty soil mix and fill the pot about two thirds up with this mix, making a hole in the middle that you can lower the Lithops into. Gently tuck the plant into the soil, leaving a gap between the soil and the leaves of the plant which can be filled with pebbles. The pebbles help to recreate the Lithops natural environment. If you are repotting the plant to create more space for clusters to grow, choose a pot that is too wide for the current plant so that you won’t need to repot the cluster further down the line.
Lithops plants can be propagated from seed, or by division. To grow Lithops from seed, prepare a small pot filled with cactus mix and moisten the soil. Set a seed on top and sprinkle a light layer of sand over the top. Set the pot in a bright and warm spot and keep the soil moist but not wet until a seedling appears. Make a water reduction after germination has occurred to prevent the Lithops from being overwhelmed with moisture.
You can propagate by division if you have a number of Lithops growing together. To separate them, remove them carefully from their pot and brush away as much of the soil from the roots as possible, taking care not to harm the root system. Each Lithops plant is reliant on its taproot for survival. You will need to identify which plant belongs to which taproot and separate them accordingly.
Use a sharp tool to divide the plants, being careful to ensure each plant is still attached to its respective taproot. The other smaller roots are less important, as these can reform once the plant has been repotted, but the plant will not be able to survive without its tap oot intact. Once the Lithops have been separated, you can divide them up and plant them in smaller pots in fresh cactus soil.
Types of Lithops Plant
Around 40 species of Lithops have been recognized since the first discovery in 1811 in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, when William Burchell, a traveling artist and collector of historic items, picked the plant up from the ground believing that it was an unusual rock (Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford). These are some of the most popular species
This plant, native to South Africa, produces striking yellow flowers. The leaves are quite large compared to other Lithops plants, growing up to two inches across, making them a medium to large species of Lithops. In terms of color, the leaves vary across the top from brown and red hues to pink and orange. The sides of the leaves are much less colorful, in shades of brown and gray. Their patterns vary dramatically depending on provenance, with a selection of irregular lines, grooves, and forks. They prefer to grow on limestone, quartz, and lava rock, typically in the Cape province.
This is a small species of Lithops with gray-green colored leaves. It produces flowers in early fall that are either white or yellow and measure around two inches across. A recipient of the coveted Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society, this Lithops plant is among the easiest to grow because it is more tolerant than its relatives of cooler weather and improper watering. While it cannot tolerate freezing temperatures or consistent overwatering, it will survive occasional drops in temperature and rainfall or accidental overwatering. It is native to South Africa and Namibia and is commonly known as the salt-dwelling living stone because it likes to reside in mineral-rich habitats.
This species is found in Botswana and the Northern Cape of South Africa. It is one of the more vibrant Lithops in terms of leaf color, ranging from bright green to deep rusty orange. It is able to hide itself amongst its surroundings by camouflaging itself into the soil. It is almost stemless and sits very low amongst the soil, only protruding a few millimeters, making it even harder to spot. The flower this plant produces is typically yellow, but in some instances will be white.
This species is native to South Africa and was named after Juanita Aucamp, who discovered it in 1929 in the Northern Cape. It is a popular Lithops among gardeners because it tolerates overwatering more so than many other Lithops, though you should still try to limit water intake and protect it from rainfall as it will not tolerate continual moist conditions. Its leaves are typically somewhere between red and brown, and its flowers are various shades of yellow (Encyclopedias of Living Forms).
Commonly known as the green rock plant, this is one of the few Lithops that exhibits a fairly uniform coloration. As the name implies, it is mostly green-gray, with a hint of pink around the edges. The flowers it produces are yellow, though they sometimes have a white center. The species is native to the Northern Cape of South Africa.
This species is native to Namibia, which does experience rainfall during winter. As such, these Lithops plants have adapted to tolerating winter watering, and so might be a good option for outdoor planting if you live in a mild climate that does experience light winter rain. There are several varieties of this species, with some exhibiting bright pink and purple leaves, and others having a more dull appearance in shades of gray and brown.
The vibrant patterns on the leaves of these species might convince you that they are painted rocks. The colors of brown and red atop a cream base provide quite a striking contrast, along with its bright yellow flowers. The species was discovered by its namesake, Dorothea Huyssteen, in South Africa.
This species is native to the South African Karoo, where it grows amongst shrubs and rocks to hide itself from predators. The leaves are almost entirely a flat dull gray, with some markings in darker shades of gray.
Originating in South Africa, this Lithops plant is easily distinguishable from the rest due to its unusual warts. These tiny pip-like growths sit on top of the leaves in shades of red, while the leaf underneath can range from pale red to green. Some varieties of this plant produce pink flowers, though most are yellow or white.
Native to Southwest Africa, this species of Lithops is one of the few which is susceptible to disease or infestation, as it is commonly the victim of mealybug attacks. The leaves of this plant tend to be a dull gray with markings in cream, brown, and green.
This species was named after the Karas Mountains in Namibia where it is found in the wild, although it can also be found in South Africa in the southwestern regions. It is able to camouflage itself amongst the quartzite stones it grows on by mimicking the colors with its leaves. It produces white flowers with yellow centers and has a clump-forming habit (Royal Horticultural Society).
This species is native to Namibia, where it enjoys cooler desert temperatures or rocky mountainous areas. The leaves range in color from gray-green to orange-brown, with flowers being yellow or white depending on cultivar.
This Lithops strongly resembles natural marble, in shades of pale grey with darker gray or tan colored mottling. It produces yellow flowers and lives amongst the Namibian desserts and mountains.
Do you grow Lithops? What’s your favorite variety, and why? Let us know in the comments below. And share this page with other gardeners who might want to add a Lithops to their collection!