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Lithops—Namibia’s Living Stones

stamp lithops karasmontana - dick findley 1973 webLithops were ‘discovered’ in 1811 by British explorer and naturalist William John Burchell during a botanical expedition to southern Africa. Not to be confused with British explorer David Livingstone who ‘discovered’ Victoria Falls in 1855, lithops (the word is both singular or plural), popularly called living stones, are small, interesting plants found in the southern continent.

What at first were thought to be strange looking stones turned out to be succulent plants whose colour and appearance closely resembled the stones between which they were growing. Not surprisingly, these fascinating plants are sometimes called ‘stone plants’ or ‘pebble plants.’ Local Afrikaans have named them for the animal prints they resemble—beeskloutjie (cattle hoof), skaappootjie (sheep hoof) or perdeklou (horse’s hoof).

Lithops favour arid or semi-arid and hot (42-45C) temperatures although they’re found in more temperate areas that receive high amounts of rainfall. They can also be grown indoors although collecting them depletes these rare natural beauties. Admirers are asked not to touch to preserve the few pockets scattered throughout the country.

These plants survive because of their ability to store water. Each one consists of two succulent leaves, demarcated by a fissure at the top. Every spring, the plant reabsorbs the old leaves so new growth can emerge.

Lithops, which come in at least 37 species and more than 145 varieties, are masters of camouflage. So well do they do this, even experts have difficulty identifying them. Subtle shades of gray, brown, rust, green, and pink, with considerable variation in patterns of dots and lines, help them mimic their surroundings.

In winter they withdraw into the soil for a dormant period, however, their extraordinary blooms can’t help but be noticed when spring rains wake them up.

When a dry, mature seed capsule is wet by rain, it opens up within a minute so the seeds can be dispersed by the raindrops. Once it stops raining, the capsule closes to protect the remaining seeds until the next rainfall.

Ostriches, rodents, and francolins (birds) will nibble at them but the armoured cricket is their worst predator, other than humans. Because collecting places their survival at risk, Hilde Mouton, from the Alte Kalköfen Lodge in southern Namibia holds the only legal permit to propagate and distribute them in Namibia.

Lithops are wild, wonderful, and precious plants,  testament to nature’s ability to survive in extreme conditions. They’re yet another of Namibia’s treasures and reason to visit this exotic country.

Stamps and Stories, Vol. 2, 50 Stories on Namibia’s Postal Stamps, Gondwana Collection Namibia, & NamPost, 2012.