Living stones and absolute gems - part five.jpg

Living stones and absolute gems – part five

By: Stuart Merelie

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Stuart Merelie, owner of QM Crazy Golf, Garden and Leisure Centre, shares his passion for correct and sustainable landscaping in the Algarve and is The Resident’s permanent garden and landscaping correspondent. This week is the fifth in a series of six entitled Stunning gardens without water.

I love gardens. When gardening or just being in a garden, I feel truly alive, as if a garden connects me to a deep nourishing source of energy – handy with the heavy and rocky soils here in the Algarve.

When we spend time in the garden we are re-connecting ourselves with the living process of planet Earth, our home. Gardening is active leisure: not a “pastime” activity, but a creative enriching experience. Foolishly we talk about being outside, as if the house was our real place in the world rather than the open air. Haven’t we lost touch just a little bit with the Earth?

D.H.Lawrence wrote in 1920:

“New houses, new furniture, new streets,

New clothes, new sheets,

Everything new and machine made,

Sucks the life out of us

And makes us cold, makes us lifeless

The more we have.”

Controlling our consumption and controlling our pollutions is rather important. Mother Nature is showing we need to make changes. We might see these will actually make our lives more pleasant and fruitful. In short, our gardens might be places to mend our souls, bury our anger and greed and experience profound joy in living. Come into my garden.

A Lithops collection. Water free landscaping! Photo: Supplied
A Lithops collection. Water free landscaping! Photo: Supplied

Welcome to Lithops. This may seem a rather obvious statement but the most often asked question when people first encounter these little wonders of nature is “What are they?” Commonly known as “Living Stones”, they seem capable of fooling humans as well as animals.

They could also be called “Finger Magnets”, especially for children, who seem to have an irresistible urge to touch them!  Plants they are, though, and one of nature’s more charming creations.

They belong to the plant family Mesembryanthemaceae (Aizoaceae). Lithops originate from South Africa and Namibia, where they have become highly adapted to conditions of extreme heat and drought.


Although it is hard to imagine, the body of a lithops is in fact a pair of leaves that have evolved to efficiently retain whatever moisture becomes available to the plant. In some areas of their habitat, rainfall may not occur for many months, so conservation of water is of prime importance. To minimise any evaporation, the leaves have become so truncated that they have lost the appearance of a normal leaf, and have become rounded like a pebble.

This has helped to make them less obvious to foraging animals, so therefore the plants that best mimic the colour and appearance of the soil and stones of their surroundings stand the best chance of survival. This, in turn, has led to the evolution of different species and varieties. The majority of lithops produce their flowers during autumn and early winter. They are daisy-like and yellow or white, depending on variety. They first open during the afternoons of sunnier days. If you can give them sufficient light, good ventilation and resist the temptation to keep watering them, there are few problems.

Spiky football

If you want something a little bigger than a Lithops, then the Golden Barrel Cactus may be for you. Echinocactus grusonii looks like a rather spiky football. Native of Mexico, it

My kind of football, Echinocactus grusonii. Photo: Supplied
My kind of football, Echinocactus grusonii. Photo: Supplied

grows slowly to a four foot high spherical beauty with large showy yellow flowers in summer. If you plant it small in a tight rock gap it will reward you with a stunning specimen to look at all year round – how many plants can offer you that?

Another gem for filling the tight spaces is the Echeveria family. Perrenial succulents that are hardy to grow and easy to split and pass on to your friends. They are native from Mexico to north-western South America. The genus Echeveria is named after the 18th century Spanish botanist Atanasio Echeverria Codoy. Several of these species are outstanding garden plants. A large number offsets heavily and are given the common name of ‘Hen and Chicks’.

Lithops optica rubra Photo: Supplied
Lithops optica rubra Photo: Supplied

Most species grow in the shade and can take some frost. All the species are drought resistant.

Whether a Lithop, an Echeveria or an Echinocactus, these are tough, generally small plants that will fill a difficult gap in your garden. A gem, as they say, only sparkles if you look at it appreciatively.