Lithops: The living stones

By Dorothy Dobbie

Wandering through a succulents collection is like stepping foot on another planet. Who knew that there was so much variety and unusual beauty in plant forms until we began to explore the world of succulents?

Chief among these wonders are the plants belonging to the lithops family or more accurately, the ice plant family. They are native to southern Africa and the word lithops derives from lithos meaning stone in Greek. Their nickname is “living stones” or sometimes, pebble plants, because they literally look like the rocky terrain they grow in. This habit is one of survival to prevent them from being eaten in a sometimes-harsh land where anything living is fair game.

Lithops are known as living stones as they resemble the rocky terrain where they grow naturally.

Lithops generally consists of a pair or more swollen leaves, often in colours of brown, cream, burgundy or gray, patterned at times with dots or lines, and with a slit between them. Herein hides the meristem where the flowers will later emerge. If you come across a lithops in the wild, what you might see is just the surface of the plant with most of the leaf buried below the soil. Look closely at the surface and you will see it is translucent, a device known as the leaf window, that lets in sunlight for photosynthesis. If things get really rough, as in a drought, the leaves may shrink and disappear into the soil altogether. But when the rain falls and the sun shines, a little miracle occurs with the emergence of the leaves from underground followed by the flowers.

Lithop in blossom.

You would think that such a shy little plant could take care of its own pollination, but instead, lithops require cross pollination from a separate plant. They are not hard to grow and are not even that expensive. You can get seeds online.