By Altman Plants
Photographs courtesy of Altman Plants
The mimicry plants known as mesembs are the thespians of the succulent world, mind-blowingly adaptable actors often accustomed to harsh, sun-blasted habitats that receive only a few inches of rain a year. They grow in coarse sand with just their translucent tops showing, enabling sunlight to reach the interior of each plant. The rest is underground, minimizing exposure to extreme elements.
There are more than 120 genera of mesembs (short for mesembryanthemums), containing several thousand plant species, but succulent enthusiasts and growers generally focus on a handful or two, among them Lithops, Lapidaria, Fenestraria, Aloinopsis, Pleiospilos, and Titanopsis.
We know Lithops species especially as “living stones” or “pebble plants” because they resemble small, rounded stones or pebbles. What look like stones are plants with two leaves separated by a gap, or cleft, from which the flowers emerge. Even better still, Lithops species are nicknamed “butts” and Fenestraria “baby toes.” Those peculiar succulent bottoms and little piggies, along with split rocks (Pleiospilos spp.) and other mesembs, are some of the most drought tolerant plants on the planet. Just give them what they want, which is not all that much — they thrive in climates of bright light, low humidity, and little to no frost.
Below are mimicry plants we’re particularly fond of. As mentioned, these master survivors tolerate drought like nobody’s business, but they will not stand for waterlogged soils, nor do they want soil loaded with organic material. Extra pumice or perlite provides excellent drainage. Water thoroughly when soil is dry during the active growing season. Some of these are somewhat tolerant of frost, but we recommend providing protection for all.
These delightful plants can confuse even experts, as no two seem to be identical in appearance. Lithops are extremely succulent, occurring in many natural shades, including, tans, browns, reddish browns, purplish browns, greys, and grassy greens, with myriad patterns and overlays of darker designs, dots, and areas known as “islands.”
A single body can be to 1.5 inches in diameter and is split by a central cleft, creating the bilobed body. New leaves absorb moisture from the old ones, which become dry husks (see photo). Many species eventually form clusters, and in their native habitat of South Africa, clusters gradually spread to form colonies that can span six feet in diameter. The green forms occur naturally in grassy areas, while the browns, tans and other colors occur in quartz fields. Flowers appear from August to November, depending upon the species.
Don’t step on these toes…baby toes, Fenestraria aurantiaca, have finger-like leaves in upright clusters. Each finger has a translucent “window” at the tip, and it is through this window that the harsh African sunlight is filtered to enable photosynthesis. In habitat, often only these windows are visible above the quartz sand. The daisy-like flowers range in color from white to golden yellow. Requires bright light to prevent stretching of the leaves.
Pleiospilos nelii ‘Royal Flush’ is a cultivar with an extremely succulent pair of burgundy leaves that form a clefted, egg-like shape. Whereas the true Pleisopilos nelii has a silky golden-apricot flower, ‘Royal Flush’ has a deep rose flower with a white center.
Let’s lay this one’s ecological cards on the table. ‘Royal Flush’ demands porous soil with excellent drainage. It should not be fertilized with heavy nitrogen, as this can cause an explosion of soft, flabby growth that can make the plant prone to bacterial rot. Decomposed granite is often an excellent media, as it has many trace minerals and is similar to the South African quartz fields where these grow. Provide bright light with ample airflow.
Titanopsis calcareum, native to South Africa, forms rosettes to 3 inches in diameter with semi-flattened, paddle-shaped leaves densely covered with grayish-green, pimple/wart-like tubercles. The leaf tips are quite warty in appearance. In its native habitat, it often grows in rocky quartz fields in soils with high limestone content. There, T. calcareum is nearly undetectable because of its cryptic coloring and rough texture, which effectively mimic rocks and the surrounding environment. Its blossoms are daisy-like light yellow flowers with many petals. Like its mimicking cousins, it craves bright light.
Karoo rose, Lapidaria margaretae, forms rosettes of highly succulent pale lavender leaves that have the appearance of faceted lilac quartz. Unlike lithops and their one leaf pair per plant, this one boasts two to four pairs of leaves. The beautiful, silky golden-yellow flowers appear during autumn months. Decomposed granite, again, is often an excellent media. Provide bright, filtered light with ample airflow. Those thick, geometric leaves seem right out of a “Minecraft”- like world. A thriving, clumped-out specimen is a quite a nifty sight.