Living stones: plants that look like rocks

If you take a walk in some deserts, you will find some very special stones: “living stones”. Logically, rocks and stones are non-living things, so a closer look would reveal you that these are plants that have taken on the appearance of stone. Do you want to know why?

LIVING STONES: PLANTS THAT LOOK LIKE ROCKS

By the name of living stones or stone plants, we find different genera of succulent plants. As you already know, succulent plants are those that have a large water storage capacity. Some of their structures, usually the leaves or stem, have a fleshy appearance due to this specialization to store water. These reserves allow them to survive in very arid environments or periods of water shortage. A well-known example of succulent plants with fleshy leaves is the Aloe vera plant, and an example of plants with succulent stems, cactuses.

Aloe Vera plant, with a carved leaf in the foreground where the succulent part is seen. Photo: Indianmart

By the name of stone plants we find different species of different families. The best known are those belonging to the genus Lithops, from Africa, since they are grown as ornamental plants. Other plants that look like stones are the species Dioscorea elephantipes (elephant’s foot) and Fredolia aretioides, both African. In the Andes we find Azorella compacta.

Camouflaged Lithops between pebbles. Photo: Xocolatl

LITHOPS SP. 

Within the genus Lithops we find several species, all with the appearance of small stones or pebbles.

As we know, to survive in arid environments plants can accumulate water inside. In addition, they reduce the contact surface of their leaves with air, to minimize the loss of water through perspiration. The most extreme case are cactuses: they have tiny and very hard leaves: the spines.

cactus puas punxes tija suculenta tallo suculento
Cacti’s spines are modified leaves and the green part corresponds to the fleshy stem. Photo: freestockcenter

In the case of Lithops (from the Greek: “lithos” -rock- and “ops” -face-), they only have outside the ground a pair of succulent leaves of 2 to 5 centimeters, with the appearance of small stones, since they also have small white spots on their surface. This stone appearance also helps them to go unnoticed by their predators. This strategy (being confused with the environment) is known as crypsis.

Lithops in a pot in different stages of growth. We can see the two leaves of each plant. Photo: yellowcloud

Actually, these spots are translucent zones, without chlorophyll, so that light can penetrate towards the rest of the plant, which is flat and remains underground. Between the two mature leaves, we find a tissue where the growth of the pair of new leaves occurs. Once the two new leaves have emerged from the center of the plant, the two old ones wither and die.

Longitudinal section of a Lithops. We see the central tissue where the new leaves will grow, the succulent translucent tissue, the photosynthetic green tissue and the translucent tissue through which the light enters (upper epidermis). Photo: C T Johansson
REPRODUCTION OF LITHOPS

Lithops reproduce asexually (cuttings) and sexually (seeds). In spite of this, reproduction by cuttings is only possible if the plant has divided naturally. If we cut and plant before it has divided itself, it will not develop as a new plant. That is why mainly the reproduction is by seeds, which are produced by a flower that emerges between the two leaves of the plant. Take a look to this 7 day- time lapse of the blooming of a Lithops:

Its curious appearance, beauty and easy maintenance, have made Lithops a decorative plant in homes and gardens.

ELEPHANT FOOT

Dioscorea elephantipes, known as elephant’s foot, turtleback or Hottentot bread, is a deciduous climber plant. Its tuberous stem is partially buried, full of fissures and covered by a hard bark. This gives it a rocky look, similar to the skin of an elephant or the shell of a turtle, as its popular name suggests. In addition, this plant accumulates large quantities of starch, so it is also known as Hottentot bread.

Discoreaceae_-_Testudinaria_elephantipes
Tuberous stem of Dioscorea elephantipes with dry shoots un its center. Photo: Hectonichus

In winter, green shoots appear with yellow flowers, that will grow until they die in summer. At this time the plant goes through a dormancy period and it will hardly need water until the appearance of the following shoots.

Elephant’s foot in summer. We see shoots with leaves. Photo: Natalie Tapson

Unlike Lithops, the elephant foot can reach one meter in height and three in circumference, although its growth is very slow. But just like Lithops, its shape tends to the sphere. This is because the sphere is the geometric shape that holds more volume offering less surface to the outside. The plant can grow minimizing the surface of contact with the air, thus reducing the loss of water by perspiration.

If you think about the amount of approximately spherical forms that we find in living beings (eggs, seeds, fruits, animals, etc.), it may be due to this reason: maximum volume (of nutritional reserves, of corporal volume…) using a minimum surface (less transpiration, less loss of heat, less surface to offer to the predators…). If you want to delve into this subject (and other shapes) it is an idea of ​​the late Jorge Wagensberg, who deals in his book The rebellion of forms and inspires a permanent exhibition at the CosmoCaixa in Barcelona.

FREDOLIA ARETIOIDES 

Fraedolia aretioides going unnoticed in the Sahara desert. Photo: Rafael Medina

Fredolia aretioides, which lives in the north of the Sahara, uses the same strategy as the elephant’s foot plant: a spherical shape to avoid the loss of water. Unlike the elephant’s foot, it does not have a hard crust, and unlike Lithops, it has more than two leaves. The plant has many hardened stems and leaves with compact growth. These leaves are a greenish-grayish color, which gives it a more rocky appearance, going completely unnoticed among the rocks of the northern desert.

Fredolia aetioides in detail. We can see a lot of tiny leaves making a compact spherical shape . Photo: Rafael Medina

AZORELLA COMPACTA

Azorella compacta, llareta or yareta distributes throughout South America, specifically in the Andes, from 3,200 meters to 4,800 meters above sea level. It is perfectly adapted to the great insolation that the soil receives at this altitude, which also, in the Andean Puna, is black or gray due to its volcanic origin. This means that at ground level the air temperature is one degree or two higher than the ambient temperature.

Yareta in Andes. Photo: Pedro Szekely

Despite being from another family and growing in a different environment than Fredolia, yareta has evolved the same strategy as it to avoid the loss of water: round shape, compact stems and small and hardened leaves. Like the previous species we have seen, it also reproduces by seeds and its flowers are yellow-greenish.

CONCLUSION

We can conclude that, although from different origins, evolution has led all these plants to solutions similar to water scarcity, to withstand high insolations and to avoid losing temperature during the night: endowing them with practically spherical shapes to reduce their relationship between surface and volume. In addition, this adaptation is complemented by the reduction of the number or size of the leaves and the accumulation of water and nutrients inside.

 

Cover photo: ellenm1 (Flickr)

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