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January 2008
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More about Mesembs

Mesembs are the most fascinating of succulent plant groups with their enormous range of weird and wonderful forms and adaptations that facilitate survival in unique and hostile environments (mostly Southern African). Succulent leaves, bright shiny-petalled flowers and hygrochastic fruit (capsules open when it rains) characterize the group. Species of the mesemb genus Malephora enliven some of the most arid gardens of southern Africa with their bright-coloured flowers and vigorous, creeping succulent growth. Without special care, and in almost any garden, these plants will flourish and delight.
Mesembs are annual to perennial succulents, ranging from minute to compact and tufted to prostrate to decumbent; herbs, dwarf shrubs, subshrubs or shrubs, they are rarely spiny. The leaves are opposite, rarely alternate, simple, free at the base to almost completely united into single, conical to ± spherical bodies, often sheathing the stem. Their shape may be flat to 3-angled to cylindrical. Commonly called “Split Rocks”, “Living Stones”, “Tiger Jaws”, “Baby Toes”, etc., the Mesembs include some of the most unusual, plants in the world.
Soil should be fast-draining sandy to stony rubble, with pockets of moisture holding material such as peat, sphagnum moss, or clay. If you don’t have much nutrition in the soil, you will have to fertilize. Temperature can range from just above freezing in winter to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Lighting is usually very high and bright in habitat, relief coming usually from another object’s shadow or the plant being in a crevice, or possibly buried in the soil until growth pokes through the soil.
It is not harmful to these plants to allow them to wrinkle a bit between watering; in fact, this is preferable to keeping them constantly turgid. The Mesembs need plenty of light and air circulation and as a general rule should not be allowed to freeze. A south to west window suits them very well in the northern hemisphere. Under lights they should be placed no more than 12″ from the tubes and given a day length of 12 to 14 hours.
In habitat, most if not all the mesembs are desert-type plants and are forced to endure long droughts, and sometimes even when it does rain, very small amounts; some can even get by on dew and fogs. Generally speaking, the mesembs have a period of time when they grow and a period of time when they don’t called a ‘dormant’ period. In the dormant period, too much watering can cause the plants to quickly rot if they stand in too much wet soil, too long. Some should not be allowed to let their roots dry out completely during dormancy, but water sparingly or you may kill the plant. Most, even if the roots do dry out completely, can be re-rooted by careful light frequent spraying when the growing season starts, and heavier watering after roots have regrown.
Mature plants require very little water, a good soaking every 3-4 weeks in the summer is enough and no water in the winter. Winter and fall growing mesembs like Argyroderma, and Conophytum require more water in the winter, and very little in the summer when they’re in their dormant cycle. When watering mature mesemb plants it’s best to water them when you see them wrinkling near the bottom of the plant. Mesembs can’t control their intake of water, and if you over water them they can burst leaving you a pile of ooze.

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