Living stones brighten late-summer doldrums

Rumor has it there are people who actually prefer work to, say, gardening, but I’m definitely not one of them. Unfortunately, work does take up a large chunk of my time since I have to earn a living, and this week has been particularly busy. I haven’t been able to do much of anything in the garden other than my usual walkthrough, but the other day I was greeted by this when I got back from an evening walk with my wife and younger daughter:

Pleiospilos bolusii just starting to bloom.
The flowers open in the late afternoon and close at dusk. It seems that everything about this plant is strange in one way or another!

Pleiospilos bolusii is an odd succulent from South Africa that falls in the “living stones” category. Its common name is “split rock” or “mimicry plant,” and it’s easy to see why.

Its native habitat is very dry, with as little as 4” (100 mm) of rainfall per year. To deal with such extreme conditions, Pleiospilos bolusii has a long taproot, much like thistles or sea hollies. To allow room for the taproot, I’ve planted my specimen in an extra deep pot. With a depth of 6¾", IKEA’s Mandel pot is perfect for this—and a bargain at $2.99.

The key to keeping this oddity alive is to strictly control the amount of water it gets. The only time it should be watered is once a week from later summer to early fall. In the winter, its prime growing season, new leaves emerge from the old leaves, which are eventually consumed entirely. If the plant is watered during this stage of active growth, the old leaves remain and the plant eventually rots and dies. Experts say that this plant is so drought-tolerant that it could go without water for an entire year in a typical North American or European climate.

Keeping the plant in a deep pot is clearly the best way to go. Our potted plant is on the edge of our succulent bed, away from any irrigation, from spring to early winter. During the rainy season, I keep it on our covered front porch. Pleiospilos bolusii is hardy to the mid 20s (-5°C) so in our zone there’s no need to bring it inside.


My potted Pleiospilos bolusii in a Mandel pot from IKEA

At this time of year, when flowering perennials and even ornamental grasses are getting a bit long in the tooth and the garden is beginning to look tired in general, it’s wonderful to see this pop of color from what is otherwise an unassuming plant.

If you’re fascinated by Pleiospilos bolusii, check out the “real” living stones: the genus Lithops. Lithops are true collector plants, and much information is available on the web. This site is a great place to start.

Living stones are easy to find, at least here in Northern California. Almost every box store has them. In addition, there are quite a few specialty nurseries that sell online, including Living Stones Nursery.


  1. Pretty cool, and strange indeed. Don't water it while it's actively growing? Crazy.

    I have to disagree with your "garden is beginning to look tired in general" comment -- although there are certainly some plants that are past their peak, this is the time when the garden is at its best I think. All the big plants are full-size, the grasses are the stars, and butterfly activity is peak. I love this time of year in the garden!

  2. Alan, I think our growing season starts a little before yours so in our garden many plants are looking tired by early September. My favorite time is June when the perennials are just starting to flower. Everything is still so fresh then.

    Some of our miscanthus are so large this year, they've flopped over, smothering their neighbors. I need to do something about that this weekend...

  3. I totally relate about 'work first before gardening' thing. We all have to work to have money to buy more plants I suppose :)

    Nice and cheery little succulent there. Amazing how big their tap root is compared to the size of the visible plant, you never realise it until you repot them and how big a pot it really needs.

    Your garden is still looking fab btw!

  4. I thought that flower was growing out of rocks! So I learned something today - it's not growing out of rocks! Thanks for sharing your living "stone". anne

  5. Mark and Gaz: Definitely, there are ALWAYS plants I want to buy. If I had unlimited funds, I'd just buy larger specimens--that is, after buying a larger property so I have room.

    I read that some areas where living stones are found get as little as 2" (50mm) of rain a year. Incredible.

    Anne, I want to create a special succulent bowl with living rocks and other oddities, like baby toes (Fenestraria aurantiaca). Who knows what other weird and wonderful plants are out there that we haven't heard of yet? I love that thought.

  6. I just looked up images of those cute baby toes and see how they get their name (like living stones.)I realize that so much of what you write about is unknown to me because of the difference in our time zones! So I am familiar with plants geared for MA, not northern CA...and speaking of succulents, I was glad to see your baby cacti update - but was surprised to see how slowly they grow!

  7. Anne, I love finding out about plants growing in our people's yards. There are things that grow well in your zone that we dream about here in California, for example hostas. I love hostas, but it's just too hot here for them to thrive.

    Yes, these baby cacti are growing sooooooooo slowly. I was leafing through a cactus book last night, and I was stunned to discover that it can take up to 20 years for some cacti to flower for the first time.

  8. Yes, your yard looks SO (as in completely)different than mine. I have a swath of hostas in a backyard shade area (I'll have to do a post on it while they are still green.) For fun, you should try a hosta variety that does better is warmer climates, even if it turns out to be an "annual" for you, and keep it in the shade and well-watered.


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