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Home Improvement / Gardening | THE INDOOR GARDENER

'Living Stones' Don't Just Sit There

May 25, 1997|JOEL RAPP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Rapp is a Los Angeles freelance writer who, as "Mr. Mother Earth," has written several best-selling books on indoor gardening

"Living stones, I presume?"

If you are looking at the plants known botanically as Lithops, you presume correctly.

Nicknamed because of their incredible resemblance to the small rocks and pebbles among which they are generally found, these fascinating plants capture the imagination of indoor gardeners whose taste runs to the more interesting and exotic.

What are Lithops?

Technically, they are succulents that consist of two opposite leaves which, through evolution, have become thickened, fused together along the outer edges and foreshortened, so as to form a body that looks like an inverted cone, tapering down to the point of junction with the root and with a fissure across the top, dividing it into two more or less equal halves, or lobes.

For our purposes, they are a slow-growing succulent perennial that look like a pebble or a stone and usually blend invisibly with the environment. Lithops will live for several decades if properly cultivated, and once a year they will produce breathtaking flowers in yellow, white, pink or salmon.

Lithops are generally only an inch or two across and have beautiful, distinctive markings. There are hundreds of varieties among the species, most of which have been identified, named and numbered by Desmond T. Cole of South Africa, a Lithops lover who, with his wife, Naureen, has spent more than 40 years collecting Lithops from more than 400 native habitats.

I know there are lots of you who are already Lithops fanciers. In a recent column, a reader asked for a source for "living stones." I suggested checking the yellow pages for cactus and succulent nurseries.

That response drew an extraordinary amount of mail from people recommending sources, and two of the sources were included in virtually every list.

One of them is Living Stones, a nursery in Tucson, Ariz., that has the largest commercial collection of Lithops in the United States.

Gene Joseph and his wife, Jane Evans, started Living Stones as a cactus and succulent nursery in 1985. Their particular interest is Lithops and, in 1987, they were able to purchase an internationally known collection. They have built their own collection from there and have about 150 varieties of 36 species; their catalog offers 100 varieties.

How popular are Lithops?

According to Steven Brack, owner of Mesa Garden in Belen, N.M., there are several thousand avid collectors in the United States.

"I mean people who know the names of each and every one of their plants," said Brack, whose 21-year-old cactus and succulent nursery is home to 12 greenhouses on five acres. "And in most cases" Brack added, "[they know] the location from which it originally came."

Among the most avid of collectors are Jim and Roberta Hanna of Lakewood. The Hannas have hundreds of plants, both indoors and out. Jim Hanna, a warehouseman, was a houseplant grower before he and his wife became involved with Lithops.

What was it about these living stones that so intrigued the Hannas, who have been serious collectors for the last 12 years?

"They're very interesting plants, the way they camouflage themselves to look like part of their environment," Jim Hanna said. "And when they burst into bloom--their shining period is June through August--they're something to see."

Caring for Lithops is tricky, the experts said.

Plant them in a cactus mix with lots of drainage. "A good mix could contain up to 50% pumice mixed with fir bark and peat moss," said Brack. As for fertilizing, Joseph recommends a very light feeding once or twice a year.

Indoors, they need to be grown in a bright, sunny window, preferably a southern exposure. And if you want to ensure blooming, they should be grown under lights.

And Joseph, Brack and Hanna all stressed one thing: During their dormant season, October through February, Lithops must not be over-watered.

"The thing is," Joseph said, "they give you no warning that you're over-watering. One day they look fine; the next day, Lithops soup."

"You're probably best off not watering them at all during that period," Hanna said.

One of the best ways to display your Lithops is to make a dish garden with your "living stones" planted among similar-looking rocks. Children especially love these little gardens.

Another fascinating feature about Lithops is the way they regenerate themselves each year, adding a new "leaf" each season until, with luck, they can grow into a clump of 10, even 20 heads.

"Basically," said Jim Hanna, "they eat themselves. They ingest the older leaves, which nourish the new ones. That's how they become a clump: One leaf dies, two come up."

If you'd like to see a great selection of Lithops on display and on sale, go to the Huntington Botanical Garden plant sale today.

If you'd like a catalog from Living Stones, the address is Living Stones Nursery, 2936 N. Stone Ave., Tucson, AZ 85705. The telephone number is (520) 628-8773. The catalog is $2, which is applicable to any purchase.

For a free catalog from Mesa Garden, write to P.O. Box 72, Belen, NM 87002.

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