Lithops: How to Care for These Strange and Wonderful Plants

Lithops are strange little plants that typically consist of one pair of chubby leaves with a split down the middle.

They can be found in many different colors, shapes, and patterns.

Lithops are commonly called Living Stones or Living Rocks because of their ability to blend right in with rocks on the ground, protecting them from predators.

These plants are sometimes said to be hard to grow, which is true only when their owners are unaware of their growth cycle.

Lithops are extremely drought tolerant, requiring only small amounts of water throughout the year. This extreme drought tolerance makes them one of the best plants for people who travel, underwater, or want a plant with little to no maintenance!

In today’s post, we’ll talk about how to care for these wonderful plants and a little bit about their life in the wild and as a houseplant.

Table of Contents

Lithops in the Wild – Where did these little oddities come from?

Lithops are native to Southern Africa.

The word Lithops means stone-like in Greek and is composed of the Greek words lithos (stone) and opsis (appearance).

Lithops refers to both a single Lithops plant and a group of Lithops plants.

The most common wild Lithops are found in varying shades of tan with a flat top. However, thanks to succulent lovers and select cultivation, these plants can be purchased in a huge range of colors ranging from pinks, oranges, yellows, greens, and even purples.

To show just how good Lithops are at hiding in plain sight, check out the photo below! Did you find the plant!? Would you ever see these little guys if you were just walking by? I know I wouldn’t!

It’s no wonder these guys are rarely found in the wild because their ability to mimic their surroundings is so impressive!

Lithops herrei in Southern Africa, Photo by: pietermier, iNaturalist, Source

Lithops Biology – How this plant functions

Each Lithops typically consists of two succulent leaves separated by a split or fissure.

The succulent leaf tops are often referred to as windows because the skin is actually translucent to allow light to come in and be used for photosynthesis.

Below you can see a photo of a dissected Lithops. Note how the leaf tops are thin enough to let light in. The inside is a clear gel-like substance which both allows light to pass through and creates a large storage area for water reserves. The chloroplasts or green parts are found on the inside edges of the plant. It is here that photosynthesis takes place.

Lithops perform photosynthesis like many cacti do, where the plant does part of photosynthesis at night and part of photosynthesis during the day to conserve as much water as possible. This process is called CAM photosynthesis and is used by many desert plants.

To learn more about CAM Photosynthesis, click to expand

Photosynthesis is the process through which plants create food or glucose for themselves by combining water and carbon dioxide using light energy.

Most plants open their stomata or pores to absorb carbon dioxide throughout the day when the sun is up and temperatures are at their highest. Each time the stomata are opened, some water evaporates from the plant’s stored water, which isn’t problematic since water is regularly available for many plants.

For many desert plants, however, water is much less available and the plants must plan on long periods of drought.

To conserve as much water as possible, Lithops and many other desert plants open their stomata at night (instead of during the day) to inhale and store carbon dioxide for later use. Once the sun is back up, the stomata will close and the desert plant can use its stored carbon dioxide and water to photosynthesize with the sunlight it receives.

Lithops grow by developing 2 new leaves hidden beneath the current pair. The new leaves are fed water from the existing leaves, slowly growing a new pair while the old pair begins to shrivel and die. Eventually, the old pair will crisp up and die, replaced by the new fresh pair.

During this time, the plant sustains itself completely, requiring no water from the environment.

How to care for Lithops as a houseplant

How much light do lithops need?

Lithops need several hours of direct sunlight with bright indirect light the rest of the day.

All of my Lithops are growing in South or West-facing windows where they receive lots of light throughout the day. I’ve heard that sometimes these plants burn in the hot afternoon soon, but have never had that problem in Michigan.

I’ve read that Lithops can be grown successfully in East windows too, but have never tried it myself.

Lithops are used to poor, gritty soil and very little water. As such, they want fast-draining substrates with pots that are not too large and do not retain moisture for long periods of time.

Lithops do really well in terracotta pots, where moisture is wicked through the clay sides, but can also be grown successfully in other pots.

The important part is to ensure the lithops is either

  • planted with lots of other lithops so the pot is filled with plants or
  • planted in a small pot where there isn’t too much extra space for moisture to linger and potentially cause issues.

To ensure fast-draining soil, use a very gritty mix with lots of pumice, perlite, decomposed granite, or other chunky, aerating materials.

I prefer to use 50% or less cactus potting mix to 50% or more pumice.

Lithops can be potted together or individually. They like living together, but the challenge for us can be that individuals in the same pot may be in different places of their growth cycle and require different watering needs.

For group pots, using a small succulent watering bottle can be an effective way of providing moisture to some of the plants in the pot while not watering others.

Here’s the succulent watering bottles that I use to squeeze small amounts where needed in pots of lithops and other small succulents. Click here to view these bottles on Amazon via their affiliate program.

Here’s a miniature bonsai pot of mine filled with various lithops and related plants. You can see how some are a bit wrinkly and in need of water while others are tightly closed and still others are beginning to split. I do have to water parts of the pot at different times and sometimes certain plants don’t thrive, like the plant in the lower right-hand corner that isn’t very happy with me and its placement. I will remove that one and see if it can be saved by potting it by itself.
One of my personal lithops, planted in a tiny bonsai pot. You can see the leaf split is just beginning to open for flowering or splitting. The tiny pot filled with a well-draining mix ensures the plant doesn’t get overwatered.
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How do you know when to water your lithops?

Lithops’ watering needs depend on where they are in their growth cycle.

These plants follow the same pattern each year:

Here’s a table that summarizes briefly when to water (with more explanation below the table as well):

SeasonHow to Water
Summer (dormant)Little to no water is needed
Early Fall (flowering)Thorough watering when dry
Mid Fall (splitting/new leaves)Little to no water is needed
Late Winter/Early Spring (old leaves 100% dry)Thorough watering when dry
Spring to Early Summer (maintenance)Water sparingly
Back to Summer (dormant)Little to no water is needed

Video timelapse of the annual lifecycle of Lithops

This video starts with the Lithops splitting in mid-Fall and ends with it flowering at the beginning of the next Fall season

More information about the Lithops’ lifecycle as it relates to watering

  1. Summer: Plant is resting during the heat of summer, waiting for cooler temperatures
    • Water sparingly as the plant is not actively growing. Some growers do not water at all during this time.
  2. Early Fall: Plant wakes up and develops a flower bud
    • Provide the plant with a thorough watering, letting water drain through the drainage holes.
    • Continue to water as the pot dries completely
  3. Mid Fall: The plant’s flower dies and the split between the leaves opens, showing new growth inside
    • Water sparingly or not at all. Lithops’ roots go mostly dormant during this time as the plant transfers its stored water from the old/current leaves to the new leaves
  4. Late Winter/Early Spring: The new growth has fully emerged and the old leaves are now dried up and crispy
    • Provide the plant with a thorough watering, letting the water drain through the drainage holes.
  5. Spring to Early Summer: The plant is in maintenance mode
    • Provide small amounts of water as needed. No need to drench the soil.
  6. Back to the heat of summer: The plant is resting and waiting for cooler weather
    • Water sparingly as the plant is not actively growing. Some growers do not water at all during this time.

How do you fertilize a lithops?

Lithops rarely require fertilizer because they have adapted to environments with poor nutrient and resource availability.

Fertilizer could be applied at the beginning of Fall/cooler weather when the Lithops wakes up and begins to push a flower bud.

You could fertilize at a very weak strength once or twice more during the year, but it isn’t required.

In fact, Lithops would likely do well if not fertilized at all for a couple of years.

Big Takeaways

  • Lithops are amazing little plants that have adapted to a harsh environment through looking almost identical to little rocks and pebbles
  • They are available in lots of beautiful cultivated varieties and colors
  • They require very little by way of water, nutrients, and soil
  • The most important aspect of their care is to give them the neglect they love and understand their growth cycle and how that relates to their watering needs

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