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Mastering Lithops Care: The Ultimate Guide to Growing Living Stones

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If you’re on the hunt for the quirkiest succulent around, Lithops should top your list. Known affectionately as living stones, these little wonders mimic the look of rocks, hooves, or even small brains! Their unique design and ability to thrive on minimal water make them a standout in the world of succulents.

Caring for Lithops might seem daunting due to their unconventional appearance and needs. Yet, with a grasp of the essentials, they become one of the easiest plants to manage in your collection.

They’re not just a talking point because of their odd looks; these plants require a specific approach to sunlight exposure and drainage to flourish. Stick to a tailored watering regimen, and you’ll find that growing these fascinating plants is rewarding.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the nuances of nurturing Lithops, but first, let’s explore what makes them a must-have for enthusiasts eager to add something out-of-the-ordinary to their indoor garden.

What is a lithops plant?

Lithops, also affectionately called living stones, belong to the succulent category and are indigenous to the southern regions of Africa.

These unique plants closely resemble stones, a clever adaptation that camouflages them within their rocky, arid environments to avoid predation by herbivores. Rarely exceeding an inch in height, Lithops have evolved to maintain a low profile.

What is a lithops plant?
Credit: Mountain Crest Gardens
Common Name Living stones, pebble plants
Botanical Name Lithops spp.
Family Aizoaceae
Plant Type Succulent, perennial
Mature Size 0.5–2 in. tall, 0.5–2 in. wide
Sun Exposure Full
Soil Type Sandy, well-drained
Soil pH Acidic, neutral, alkaline
Bloom Time Fall, winter
Flower Color White, yellow, orange
Hardiness Zones 10–11 (USDA)
Native Area Africa

In the wild, these fascinating plants are mostly submerged under the soil, with only the top of their leaves visible. These top sections, known as leaf windows, are translucent, allowing sunlight to penetrate for photosynthesis.

Each plant sports a pair of thick, rubbery leaves separated by a fissure from which new leaves emerge seasonally, typically in spring. As new leaves appear, the old ones wither away.

Lithops are characterized by their vibrant, pebble-like exteriors that can easily deceive an untrained eye into mistaking them for mere rocks. They are connected to a deep, extensive root system. During fall, Lithops produce a single, daisy-like flower, typically yellow or white, emanating a mild, sweet fragrance. This flower blooms in the afternoon and closes by nightfall.

Given their compact size, Lithops make excellent indoor plants, fitting perfectly on sunny windowsills or small spaces in apartments. They require about six hours of direct sunlight daily and thrive in sandy, well-draining soil with moderate indoor temperatures and humidity.

These plants are also popular in terrariums due to their minimal care needs and variety of colors. They not only add a quirky element to plant collections but are also ideal as low-maintenance, charming housewarming gifts.

Types of lithops

Lithops are fascinating plants that thrive naturally in expansive clusters. These succulents boast a rich array of species—over three dozen, in fact—with more than 140 distinct varieties available.

While not every type is found in the commercial plant market, enthusiasts will discover a wide selection featuring an assortment of hues and patterns that are perfect for creating eye-catching displays.

Types of lithops
Credit: CactusPlaza

Among the most sought-after lithops species are Lithops lesliei, Lithops marmorata, Lithops hookeri, Lithops helmutii, Lithops bromfieldii, and Lithops terricolor. Each brings its own unique charm.

For instance, Lithops julii displays pinkish-gray leaves adorned with distinctive brown spots. Lithops gracilidelineata offers a more subdued palette with pale, gray-white leaves that mimic the appearance of cracked stone. Meanwhile, Lithops marmorata showcases smooth, gray-green foliage with a stunning marbled effect.

The intriguing colors and markings of these plants vary depending on their native environments or the specific breeding methods used to develop new varieties. From understated tones of gray, green, and brown to vibrant splashes of pink, cream, and orange, and even patterns that include lines and dots, lithops are a collector’s dream.

Their minimal stem exposure above ground and the diverse array of textures and colors make them an ideal choice for anyone looking to add a unique touch to their plant collection.

Living Stones Care

Lithops are perfectly safe for both humans and animals. In some regions of Africa, children even consume these succulents to satisfy their thirst. Despite their non-toxic nature, it’s essential to exercise caution if they’ve been treated with pesticides, as this can make them harmful. For safety, keep these plants away from pets and young children.

Understanding the growth cycle of lithops is crucial, especially if they are grown as indoor plants. Originating from environments with distinct seasons, lithops enter a dormant state during the peak of summer after their spring growth. This period of rest is a natural part of their cycle, and it’s vital to let the soil dry out as it would in their native habitat.

Following their autumn bloom, they enter a second dormancy phase during winter, when watering should be reduced almost completely.

When planting lithops, opt for a very free-draining soil, such as cactus mix, and position them in a well-lit, dry area like a south- or east-facing windowsill. Water these succulents minimally—far less than you would other types.

From October to May, avoid watering altogether to allow the old leaves to shrivel, and similarly, refrain from watering during the summer dormant phase.

Lithops require minimal maintenance but insist on certain conditions to thrive. They grow slowly and need soil that drains well, incorporating sand and gritty substances to emulate their natural, rocky habitats. Choose a pot with adequate drainage to prevent root rot and position it in partial shade to protect new leaves from direct sunlight.

To successfully nurture a living stone plant, keep these tips in mind:

  • Plant them in spring or autumn, just before their dormant seasons.
  • Ensure they receive plenty of direct, bright light but shield the top leaves from burning.
  • Consider an artificial grow light if your setting lacks sufficient natural sunlight.
  • Water lightly only when the soil dries during active growth periods in spring and fall, avoiding watering in both summer and winter.

Light Exposure

Just like any succulent, Lithops thrive under ample sunlight. They flourish with about 4-5 hours of direct morning sun, followed by partial shade in the afternoon to dodge the risk of sunburn. These “living stones” are best suited to a full sun exposure throughout the year, soaking up at least six hours of daylight most days.

For indoor growth, positioning them by a south-facing window offers optimal lighting, which is crucial since insufficient light leads to stretched, discolored leaves due to the lack of a substantial stem above the ground.

Living Stones Care
Credit: The Next Gardener

Originating from the robust climates of southern Africa, Lithops are well-adapted to intense sunlight. Nonetheless, during the scorching summer months, they appreciate some relief from the afternoon sun. Too little light results in weak, elongated growth which detracts from their unique appearance.

It’s essential during the colder months to maximize sunlight exposure to stimulate new leaf development, particularly for those cultivating these plants indoors near a bright, south-facing window.

For the gardening enthusiasts considering Lithops as houseplants, adequate daily light is a must. Insufficient lighting causes the leaves to etiolate—stretching awkwardly towards the nearest light source, distorting their shape, and dulling their vibrant colors.

Although Lithops love the sun, too much direct heat, especially in container settings, can lead to overheating and damage the plant. Therefore, managing exposure during peak heat by adjusting their placement or providing some shade is key.

Finally, if you ever need to relocate your Lithops, do so gradually. These plants, much like some people we know, aren’t fond of abrupt changes in their environment.

Water

Taking care of lithops isn’t as daunting as it sounds once you get the hang of their specific needs. These fascinating succulents flourish in dry conditions, mimicking their desert origins where rainfall is a rarity. Their thick leaves are nature’s water tanks, keeping them hydrated during droughts.

For these plants to thrive, it’s essential to imitate their natural water cycle and resist the urge to water too frequently—overwatering can spell disaster.

The timing of watering lithops is key, especially when they’re sprouting new leaves from between the old ones, which typically happens once a year. Water them when the older leaves begin to naturally shrivel.

Kicking off their growth in the fall to align with their native rainy season is ideal, making it the prime time for a good soak, and this is also when they might bloom, if they’re at least three years old.

Avoid watering in summer and winter when lithops slow down and enter a rest phase. Watering during these times can lead to root rot. If the plants start to wrinkle up top, it means they need a bit of water—just enough to plump them back up. In spring and autumn, when they’re growing more actively, water lightly every few weeks.

If you’re in a moist climate, you might not need to water much at all, as the lithops can pull moisture from the air. Make sure to stop watering in winter so the new leaves can draw water from the old ones. Once the old leaves have shriveled up in spring, you can start watering again, letting the soil dry out between waterings.

During the hottest parts of summer, keep your lithops dry and then give them a thorough watering in early September to kick off their growth period. Keep them sheltered from rain or sprinkles to maintain your precise watering plan.

Living Stones Care
Credit: Planet Desert

Lithops have a deep taproot that pulls moisture from deep underground, helping reduce their need for frequent watering. New enthusiasts often overwater, leading to root rot, so it’s crucial to let the soil completely dry out between waterings.

In early winter, hold off on watering to avoid the old leaves absorbing too much moisture, which can impede new growth. Paying attention to your plant’s visual cues, like wrinkling leaves, will tell you when it’s time for a light watering.

By following a seasonal watering schedule that reflects their natural environment, your lithops will not only survive but flourish, adapting beautifully as they mature through their life cycle.

Ideal Temperature

Lithops really aren’t cut out for the cold—much like many of us! In their native desert climes, chilly temperatures are rare but harmful when they occur.

These resilient desert succulents are comfortable in heat, thriving in temperatures ranging from 65°F to 80°F, although they can handle highs up to 90°F to 100°F.

However, when the mercury dips below 40°F, it’s a smart move to bring them indoors to avoid any risk of frost damage. Cold can cause their cell walls to break, leading to rotting of the plant’s tissues if any part remains exposed to low temperatures for too long.

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In terms of their ideal living conditions, lithops are best kept at a cozy 65°F to 80°F. They have some tolerance for slight deviations from this range, but keep them away from environments colder than 50°F or hotter than 100°F to prevent damage.

While lithops can endure some humidity, excessive moisture is a no-go, as it can precipitate root rot. For those growing these succulents indoors, it’s crucial to replicate their dry native habitat by maintaining low humidity and ensuring the soil dries out between waterings. Good air circulation is also key to keeping these unique plants healthy and happy.

Read More On Extending Your Growing Season: Harnessing the Power of Cold Frames in Your Garden

Soil

These fascinating succulents thrive in environments ranging from sandy to nearly all rocky terrain. Accustomed to less-than-ideal soil conditions, these plants prefer a gritty substrate that drains quickly. A perfect choice would be a standard cactus mix, or you can whip up your own by mixing equal parts potting soil with sand, rocks, and perlite.

For optimal growth, situate your Lithops in a cactus or rapid-draining soil mix. Incorporating sand, pebbles, and similar gritty elements not only enhances drainage but also closely resembles their native habitat. These unique plants favor a soil blend low in nitrogen to avoid excessive leaf growth, which can obscure their natural, stone-like form.

To add a splash of fun to your indoor garden, top the soil with colorful pebbles. This not only beautifies your space but also complements the quirky personality of Lithops. Don’t forget, ensuring your pot has a drainage hole is crucial; excess water needs a way out to prevent harm to these slow-growing beauties.

Living Stones Care
Credit: Better Homes & Gardens

Fertilizing Needs

Lithops are pretty low-maintenance and generally don’t need any fertilizer to flourish. However, if you’re keen to see them bloom, consider giving them a light boost with a heavily diluted cactus fertilizer during the spring, just before they typically flower.

Make sure it’s a formula low in nitrogen but rich in potassium, and apply it carefully to avoid touching the leaves, as direct contact could harm the plant.

It’s usually best to skip the fertilizer for Lithops. They naturally thrive in gritty, low-nutrient soil, and introducing extra nutrients, especially nitrogen, can cause unwanted rapid growth that doesn’t suit these slow-growers.

If you do decide to fertilize, the early winter is the optimal time as this is when new leaves are developing. Remember, with Lithops, less is more when it comes to nutrients.

Some enthusiasts do fertilize once during the growing season to encourage flowering. For this purpose, use a cactus-specific fertilizer and apply it sparingly. K

eep in mind that not all Lithops bloom easily; some might only start flowering after they’ve matured for about five years. Always opt for a gentle approach to avoid damaging these unique succulents, which are best suited to nutrient-sparse conditions.

Propagating lithops

Propagating Lithops can be done through seeds or by dividing mature plants. Given that these succulents grow at a leisurely pace, it often takes a few years before divisions are ready to take root.

Most enthusiasts prefer starting with seeds despite the slow journey from germination to maturity, which spans several months to years. This method allows gardeners to observe the fascinating slow development of these unique plants from the very beginning.

Grow Living Stones From Seed

Propagating Lithops, or living stones, from seeds is quite straightforward and can be a rewarding project for any gardening enthusiast. Start by mixing a well-draining soil with some gritty material as previously mentioned.

Sprinkle the Lithops seeds evenly across the soil surface and then gently cover them with a fine layer of sand. It’s crucial to maintain this sand layer slightly moist to facilitate germination. As the seedlings develop, you can gradually decrease the frequency of watering.

When it comes to pollination, you have two options: rely on natural pollinators or take matters into your own hands with a soft paintbrush. Gently transfer pollen from one Lithops flower to another to ensure effective cross-pollination.

Propagating lithops
Credit: Gardeners World

After pollination, the flowers will eventually give way to seed capsules. It’s important to collect these seeds while the capsule is dry but not yet opened. You can carefully crack the capsule using a small, hard object—don’t worry, the seeds inside are quite resilient.

If you don’t have your own Lithops plants for harvesting seeds, you can easily purchase them. When planting, simply repeat the soil preparation steps and place the seeds under a light sand covering, keeping the environment lightly moist until germination.

Remember, though it takes several years for seed-grown living stones to mature and flower, the wait is part of the fun, yielding unique and sometimes unexpected hybrids.

To gather seeds yourself, watch for the flowers to fade and produce seed pods. Once a pod appears, snip it off with clean gardening shears and expose it to moisture (a few water drops will do) to mimic the natural effect of rain, which encourages the pod to open.

Extract the seeds with a toothpick or tweezers, then sow them in fresh, well-draining cactus soil, covering lightly with sand. Water just enough to keep the sand moist until the seeds sprout, then reduce watering frequency, continuing care as initially described.

Propagating Lithops through division

Propagating Lithops through division is a viable method, though it’s not always easy to find a cluster large enough to separate. This technique should be applied only when you can clearly see natural separations in the plant.

Propagating Lithops through division
Credit: Planet Desert

To start, gently remove the Lithops from its current container, brushing away any soil clinging to the roots. Carefully inspect the root structure and the arrangement of leaves to determine the best place to divide, ensuring each section retains a healthy portion of taproot.

Choose a new pot for each segment, ensuring it’s deep enough to accommodate the lengthy taproot without forcing it to bend. The ideal pot should be around 6 inches deep to prevent the taproot from curling at the bottom, and it must have excellent drainage. An unglazed clay pot is perfect for this, as it helps wick away excess moisture.

Lithops grow very slowly, meaning you won’t need to repot them frequently. However, if you notice that your plants are starting to crowd each other out, it’s time to give them more space. Carefully lift each one, keeping the roots intact, and transfer to a new pot that surpasses the roots’ length. Fill it with a fresh cactus potting mix to give your Lithops a fresh start.

Cultivating Living Stones for Vibrant Blooms

  • When Do Living Stones Flower?

Living stones, intriguing succulents that they are, typically start to flower at about three years of age and will continue to do so annually. These plants choose their blooming time based on the temperature, favoring the milder periods of late spring, late summer, early fall, or early winter to showcase their blooms.

  • Bloom Duration

Expect the delicate flowers of living stones to grace your garden for just a few days—a stark contrast to plants that keep their blossoms for weeks.

  • Appearance and Fragrance of the Blooms

The blooms of living stones often resemble daisies, featuring an array of many-petaled flowers in hues of yellow, pale orange, or white. These flowers emerge from the crevice between the leaves, creating a charming display.

While some emit a gentle sweet aroma, others might not have any scent. These blooms typically open to bask in the sunshine and close as the day ends.

  • Encouraging More Blooms

Though generally, it’s advised against using fertilizers on living stones, some enthusiasts find that a diluted potassium-based fertilizer can help stimulate more prolific blooming.

  • Post-Bloom Care

After blooming, living stones enter a period of dormancy. If the flowers have been pollinated, they leave behind seed pods. It’s important not to remove these spent flowers if you aim to collect seeds, as living stones require cross-pollination to reproduce.

Once the blooming season ends, withhold watering until spring, which prompts the emergence of new leaves while the old ones wither and detach.

Pests and Diseases

Lithops typically enjoy a pest-free existence, thanks to their hardy nature. Most common plant ailments don’t affect them, and they aren’t usually a target for pests that prefer more succulent vegetation. However, if you do encounter pest issues with your lithops, here are effective strategies to manage them:

  1. Spider Mites: Often found lurking in the small gaps between lithops leaves or along the plant’s periphery, spider mites can be eliminated using a simple solution of dish soap and water. It’s best to avoid oil-based products as they can cause leaf burn under sunlight.
  2. Mealybugs: These tiny, white bugs tend to cluster in indoor environments, draining the sap from lithops and stunting their growth. They can be physically removed or dealt with using the soap and water mixture mentioned earlier.
  3. Aphids: Attracted to the fleshy leaves of lithops, aphids can also be manually picked off or treated with an appropriate insecticide if they become a nuisance.
  4. Root Rot: This condition is usually the result of overwatering. Lithops need well-draining soil and minimal moisture. Ensure your pots have adequate drainage holes to prevent water accumulation.
  5. Fungal Diseases: Overwatering can also lead to fungal issues, causing discoloration and deformities in the leaves. To avoid this, keep the soil dry and ensure good air circulation, especially during the dormant winter months.

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Overwatering is a common theme in many lithops problems, attracting various pests like spider mites, scale insects, and even snails and slugs. In outdoor settings or on patios, these plants might also attract small mammals.

Pests and Diseases
Credit: BCSS

For specific pests like spider mites, a diluted solution of rubbing alcohol and water can be effective. For other invaders, insecticidal soap serves as a suitable remedy. Always remember, lithops thrive under dry conditions and are highly susceptible to damage from excessive watering.

Common Problems

Living stones, typically low-maintenance succulents, can encounter some cultivation challenges, mostly due to unsuitable lighting or watering conditions. Adjusting these can greatly improve their health.

Shriveled Leaves:

It’s rare for living stones to suffer from under-watering, but in active growth phases during spring and fall, insufficient moisture can cause leaves to shrivel or wrinkle. To counter this, water enough to dampen the soil without soaking it. Focus on misting the soil, not the leaves.

Brown Leaf Tips:

If your lithops display brown tips, this could indicate overwatering. Ensure the pot has adequate drainage and water only when the soil’s surface is bone dry.

Yellow Leaves:

Long exposures to direct sunlight can cause the outer leaves of lithops to turn yellow. Although these plants love bright light, they favor some afternoon shade or filtered light to shield them from harsh rays.

Stunted Growth:

Lithops are fascinating for their growth pattern, where new leaves sprout from between old ones. A lack of new foliage could signal nutrient scarcity. Employ a low-nitrogen soil blend and consider a slow-release fertilizer to enhance nutrient availability.

Non-flowering:

Lithops typically flower in early winter, displaying white or yellow blooms. A failure to flower might mean insufficient moisture, particularly during the germination phase. Increase watering frequency during this period, but avoid waterlogging.

Overwatering Signs:

Overwatered lithops may show:

  • Yellow, soggy leaves indicating excess moisture.
  • Brown spots or edema due to water overload.
  • Leaf splitting where leaves burst from excessive internal water pressure.
  • Root rot, evident from waterlogged, mushy brown roots. If the leaves feel too soft, cut back on watering, especially during dormant periods. If overwatering occurs, assess and possibly replant your lithops with fresh soil after trimming any damaged roots.

Etiolation:

Lithops deprived of light may stretch or become pale, an issue known as etiolation. If your plant shows such signs, increase its light exposure, though recovery may span several growth cycles.

Discoloration from Low Light:

Inadequate light can lead to pale, elongated leaves as the plant stretches towards the light source. Place them in full sun to combat this issue. Conversely, too much sun can cause them to lose color, become pale, and shrink, potentially fatal in young plants. For older plants, removing damaged leaves can help recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is a lithops a type of succulent?

Absolutely! Lithops, often called living stones, are fascinating succulents that mimic the appearance of colorful, stone-like pebbles. These intriguing plants are a fun addition to any outdoor garden or indoor collection, adding a touch of whimsy.

  • Are lithops difficult to maintain?

Indeed, lithops require some attention to thrive. They need plenty of sunlight, sparse watering, and a well-draining potting mix to flourish. With the right care, you can successfully cultivate these unique plants.

  • Can lithops thrive without soil?

Yes, lithops perform quite well in a soil-free environment. While they don’t need traditional soil, using a succulent mix or a quick-draining potting medium is ideal to support their growth.

  • Is it challenging to grow living stones?

On the contrary, living stones are relatively low-maintenance. They need minimal watering except in the spring and fall when the soil should be lightly moistened after it dries. Full sunlight is crucial, and thankfully, they are not often affected by diseases.

  • What is the lifespan of living stones?

Living stones are incredibly long-lasting, often living up to 50 years with proper care. Ensuring they have the right conditions will help them thrive for decades.

  • Do living stones reproduce?

Yes, lithops naturally propagate by dispersing seeds from pods that form after the flowers die. These seeds can sprout new plants, which you might choose to separate and replant if they overcrowd their current home.

  • Can living stones be cultivated outdoors?

Living stones can be grown both indoors and outdoors. However, in colder climates where temperatures drop below 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, it’s best to bring them indoors.

  • Why grow living stones?

Starting a collection of lithops is incredibly rewarding. Not only are they a delightful challenge to grow, but their quirky, pebble-like appearance is sure to spark a deep fascination and appreciation among all who cultivate them.

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