Within the succulent world, there are about 100 weird, chunky plants known as mesembs, which all mimic the appearance of rocks and stones, blending in with their harsh surroundings.
Mesembs all generally have unusual growing conditions, and most are flowering right now as we step into autumn, turning our greenhouses into colorful rainbows. They belong to the Aizoaceae family and come mainly from South Africa and Namibia.
Mesembs share a few common traits that will be found throughout all different species. They all have juicy, succulent leaves, most of which recycle the older leaves to new growth. They are mostly adapted to relatively predictable rainfall patterns rather than extreme drought and irregular rainfall. Some live with little rain entirely but survive on the fog. All mesembs have a specific growing and resting season.
Here are some of our favorite mesembs that we have in New Zealand.
Split rock succulent - Pleiospilos nelii
Pleiospilos nelii, aka Split Rocks, are a flowering succulent from South Africa that resemble stones.
Pleiospilos nelii is one of several plants cultivated for their rocklike appearance. Covered in tiny dots, our favorite is the Pleiospilos nelii “Royal Flush,” a bright purple cultivar. Native to South Africa, there are also others that are pale, gray-green in color with a cleft down the center. New leaves grow at right angles to the split.
Every year it grows two new leaves, which gradually replace the older leaves. A bright orange flower will emerge from the middle in the autumn or winter.
Living stones - Lithops
Lithops are native to Africa and consist of two simple thick leaves, most of which stay buried underground. There are hundreds of subspecies of lithops which means you can collect them in a wide variety of colors.
Most of the plant stay buried underground, with light entering through the windows at the top of their exposed leaf, protecting them. Lithops like a lot of sunlight, direct morning sun, and bright indirect afternoon light. If they begin to grow elongated, that means they are not getting enough light.
Lithops have a yearly water cycle which means that they spend winter growing two new leaves which gradually absorb the two older dying leaves - do not remove them as they begin to shrivel up and don’t water.
Conophytum is a genus of South African and Namibian succulent plants that are relatively rare in New Zealand.
Generally little plants, Conophytum tend to form in dense clusters of leaf pairs. They come in many varieties of colors, textures, shapes, and sizes, with most blooming in the autumn. Conophytum igniflorum, Conophytum bilobum, and Conophytum minimum 'wittebergense' are some of the varieties you might find if you look hard enough.
Conophytums actively grow from autumn to winter and then go dormant in the spring and summer when the existing leaves dry up and protect the new pair of leaves in a papery sheath. When dormant, they require little or no water.
Stone plant - Dinteranthus
Dinteranthus are unusual succulents, hailing from South Africa and Namibia. With chunky opal, blue-white-green colored leaves that change color with the light, the leaves occur in pairs with a deep cleft down the middle where a flower will emerge
Dinteranthus is an unusual genus of plants that look like rocks, hailing from the Cape Province in South Africa and along the southeast corner of Namibia. With chunky opal, blue-white-green colored leaves that change color with the light, Dinteranthus resemble lithops.
The leaves occur in pairs with a deep cleft down the middle where a flower will emerge usually in the autumn. They actively grow in the winter. Come summertime, only water when the skin begins to wrinkle. They require very little watering.
Baby toes succulent - Fenestraria rhopalophylla
Native to Namibia, the baby toes succulent, Fenestraria rhopalophylla, are cute succulents that generally stay small and form in clumps and grow like a mat across the sandy ground.
Their tube-shaped leaves generally grow flush with the sandy soil, with only the transparent windows filtering the light above. The adorable white flowers bloom in the autumn.
Typically baby toes need regular succulent watering when it’s actively growing, with it going dormant in the summertime. They prefer full sun to bright indirect light.
Titanopsis is a very cool mat-like succulent native to Namibia and South Africa.
Forming tiny rosettes with pink and grey leaves with raised white bumps, they are very unusual looking and bloom with little yellow flowers in the autumn. Titanopsis are easy to grow and clump readily, forming a beautiful succulent mat.
Titanopsis can actually tolerate extreme heat and cold, unlike other succulents. Winter-growing plants, they enjoy full sun in the colder months, going dormant in summer. There are about ten other species of Titanopsis, all of which look very similar, including Titanopsis schwantesii, Titanopsis hugo-schlechteri, and Titanopsis primosii.