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Lithops - Living stones

Avatar of inke inke - 17. March 2017 - Discover Namibia, Environment

Lithop: Flowering stone. Photo: Ron Swilling

In 1811, botanist, explorer and artist William John Burchell recorded finding a “curiously strange pebble”, which he discovered was a plant that “ ... in colour and appearance bore the closest resemblance to the stones between which it was growing”.

This “living stone” or lithops, derived from the Ancient Greek words lithos – stone and ops – face, has intrigued many people over the centuries, not least of all Desmond Cole. He was fascinated from the first time he laid eyes on this unusual plant in 1954, identifying the different species over the years together with his wife Naureen and eventually writing the definitive book on lithops Lithops: Flowering Stones, several decades later.

A real desert child, lithops favours arid or semi-arid areas that receive less than 100-150 millimetres of rainfall per year and in temperatures that often reach between 42-45 degrees Celsius, although it is also found in more vegetated grasslands with higher rainfall. In the coastal areas of the Namib Desert, it depends on the mist to obtain moisture. Only 38 species have been identified, most being found in Namibia and South Africa and one species in Botswana. It is usually located on well-drained stony slopes and ridges strewn with small stones and mostly occurs amongst the lighter-coloured quartzites, pegmatites, granites, gneisses, schists or calcretes. These provide a little shade, reflect the sun’s rays reducing its intensity and being the first to cool off at night attract condensation that drips down onto the plants.

Well camouflaged between stones and often speckled to break up its shape, the lithops plant is not easily seen. It withdraws into the soil in the dry winter months for a dormant or resting period. When it bursts into flower at the onset of the rains, responding to the moisture in the air, it can no longer pretend to be anything but extraordinary.

The bright and beautiful flower leaves a seed capsule of minute seeds that will germinate only in perfect conditions, even if that takes up to fifteen years. When a dry mature seed capsule is wet by rain, it will open up within a minute, exposing the seeds to the force of the raindrops for dispersal. When the rain stops and the capsule dries, it will close protecting the remaining seeds until conditions are once again suitable for germination. Extremely slow growing, the small, thick lobed leaves, fused at the bottom and divided by a fissure across the top, will only begin to replicate after two to three years. As with much desert-adapted flora and fauna, this genus of succulent plants in the Aizoaceae family has evolved to endure extreme conditions with a remarkable tenacity, yet still holds a fragile and delicate beauty.

Besides man and the odd nibble by animals like rodents, ostriches and francolins, the armoured cricket is the plant’s worst predator. Each lithops is precious, requiring protection and admirers are requested to look without touching and leave the sensitive species as is to preserve the few pockets that are scattered about the country. Plants rarely survive if collected and collecting depletes existing populations, placing the future existence of the genus at risk.

Hilde Mouton from the Alte Kalköfen Lodge in southern Namibia has realised that protection for these plants is of utmost importance. She holds the only permit to legally propagate and distribute lithops in Namibia and urges people to rather visit her for sought-after seed. She germinates the “flowering stones” in her lithops nursery or “lithoparium”, called the Cole Lithoparium in honour of the lithops experts, preventing hybridisation and maintaining conditions as similar as possible to those found in nature.

These fascinating plants are sometimes called “pebble plants” or “stone plants” and are also known by their Afrikaans name beeskloutjies – little cow hooves. Whatever the name, the “living stones” are a wild and wonderful plant genus, testament to the ability of nature to endure in all conditions and in the remotest of places.

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