Living Stones

For many years succulents, apart from a few colourful vygies in Spring, were simply never considered for any of the gardens I was involved in helping to create. Possibly this prejudice stemmed from childhood memories of hot, mind-numbingly boring journeys through the ‘barren’ Karoo with nothing to see from the back seat of the family car and nothing that resembled any trees or shrubs that I was familiar with.

Gradually my attitude has changed over the years – prompted firstly by an appreciation of what rich orange and gold aloes can do to a winter landscape, not to mention their ability to nourish so many birds in times of meagre pickings; and secondly more of an awareness of the importance and lack of water in our country – a situation which seems only to be getting worse.

Welwitzia mirabilis Photo: Dionys Moser
Welwitschia mirabilis
Photo: Dionys Moser

A visit to Namibia about ten years ago and a desire to see the extraordinary and curious Welwitschia mirabilis growing in the wild, made me realise how fascinating desert plants can be. Although not a true succulent, the Welwitschia has many remarkable features that make it difficult to categorise. It is adapted to grow under arid conditions which receive regular fog, and lives for 500-600 years. (If you would like to find out more about this amazing plant have a look at From Swakopmund we were taken into the Namib Desert by an extremely knowledgeable guide who explained all sorts of interesting details about these ‘boring’ plants. In their natural setting the geometric forms of many succulents were dramatic and intriguing and I realised that with careful planning and grouping these plants could be successfully celebrated in the suburban garden.

Recently a friend gave us three little succulents that look exactly like pebbles. At quick glance one would be hard pressed to identify them as plants and it is no wonder that it was as late as 1811 that the naturalist and traveller, William Burchell, first recorded a plant that he found near Prieska in the Northern Cape.

Lithops Photo: Margaret Richards
Photo: Margaret Richards

They are of course the popular stone plants or Lithops (from the Greek meaning stone-like), a member of the Mesembryanthum family. The plant consists of two thick semi-translucent leaves. The flattened top part of the leaf comes in a variety of patterns and colours, and allows light to enter the plant body so that the sun’s rays can activate cells to assist with photosynthesis. During times of extreme drought the plants can pull themselves into the soil, becoming semi-subterranean, and thus protected from the harsh sun.

After sitting quietly in their pots for months, watered only by rain, there has been a sudden burst of activity. At the end of March one plant produced a bright yellow flower from the groove between the leaves, to be followed a few weeks later by the second plant – which produced a white flower. The flowers opened each day after noon and stayed open until dusk. They lasted about two weeks and then died down.

Lithops in full flower Photo: Margaret Richards
Lithops in full flower
Photo: Margaret Richards

Apparently the plants are easily cultivated. Seeds are produced during November and December and should be sown from March to May, the normal time they would germinate in the wild. This is just as well as some species are collected by herbalists for medicinal purposes and others are eaten as a source of food. So my next challenge will be to try and grow these little plants from seeds.

Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones