Have fun with desert succulents

Blend in or die is one of the unquestionable laws of survival. Whether it’s a chameleon, a soldier or a tiny succulent, the rule is always the same. If they can’t find you they can’t kill you.

So how do you blend in to a harsh desert that’s empty except for a million acres of gravel and rocks? Answer: Look like a rock.

The vast deserts of Africa, particularly along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia and western South Africa are part of the world’s driest desert. Plant life there has devised amazing ways to cope with drought. It must also contend with browsing wildlife that is hungry and thirsty for plant moisture.

Many African plants evolved thorns to keep the browsers at bay. Others simply blend in so well you never see them. Most remain small, with the larger portion of the plant hidden underground. The visible parts take on the same color as the earth plus they exhibit a mottled surface texture. A few even present a shape that resembles river-washed gravel. The worst-case scenario for these half hidden fellows is being stepped on by a sharp hoof.

The technical word for this type of camouflage adaptation is mimicry. It is the adaptation of plants to look like something very different in order to blend in for protection.

The succulents make some of the most enchanting windowsill plants in the world. They sit quietly without much change for months, serving much like living sculptures. When you combine a mimicry plant with perfectly matched gravel, you can re-create this rare desert scenario anywhere — even in the heart of New York City.

For windowsill adventurers, the most famous of all mimicry plants are the lithops. They are tiny, round, flat-topped single-leaf succulents. A lithop is about the diameter of a quarter that’s split in half with a seam. Each year the seam opens up to emit a beautiful daisy flower. It also opens again to allow a whole new identical leaf to rise out from the center of the old withering one.

It is tough to resist feeling the skinlike surface of Lithops and other mimicry succulents. But resist the temptation because their outer layers are so specialized they cannot tolerate the scant amount of oil left by the human finger. That oil will cause it to heat up and tear open in the sunlight.

You’ll find lithops in various colors that resemble a wide range of gravels. Light travels down through the dots and lines of the patterns to reach photosynthetic cells protected deep inside the succulent flesh.

Lithops can be grown on a sunny windowsill, but even experts are respectful of their abhorrence of water out of season. One inopportune watering and they literally melt down. But these plants are so cute and make such fun gifts that they’re worthwhile even if they are temporary.

Much easier to grow mimicry plant is a Haworthia truncata. It’s a great plant to feel as there isn’t such a sensitivity to oils. Larger established clumps feel rock hard with squarish, flat topped forms. The green tops sit just at soil level while the rest of the plant lies protected underground. Light enters through the transparent flat top of each leaf while the sides are opaque.

Truncata is slow growing, but when conditions are right it will offset readily. These rosettes, which produce a geometric collection of flat topped leaves can be left in place to produce ever larger clumps.

Buy mimicry succulents via florists, indoor plant shops, garden centers and online nurseries.

The fun of mimicry succulents is creating arrangements with rocks and gravel in just the right pot. They make excellent gifts in bonsai pots or decorative stoneware. Haunt roadsides, lapidary shops and aquarium supply stores for just the right gravel. Then create them all at once for one-of-a-kind gifts that won’t end up in the closet.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of “Weekend Gardening” on DIY Network. Contact her at her Web site www.moplants.com or visit www.diynetwork.com.

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