How to Grow and Care for Conophytum (the RIGHT Way!)
Conophytum are irresistible, winter-growing green pebbles, dumplings and bilobes–dwarf plants that fit on your windowsill an are part of my favorite dessert plants list even though they come from Africa. But hey, they have a lot of dessert there too!
Sculpturally appealing and adapted for the harsh conditions of South Africa, they wrap themselves in “cocoons” against the arid heat of summer, displaying cheery daisy-like flowers of various hues in cooler conditions.
Understanding their unusual growth cycle is the key to success with these rare, interesting plants. This page is dedicated to how I fell in love with these plants, photos of my collection, and how to grow them well.
How They Got Their Name
Conophytum bodies are generally shaped like cones, roots grow from the pointy end in the soil.
The latin word “conus” translates to cone and the Greek “phytum” means plant–Conophytum is a perfect name, don’t you think?
An Interesting Growth Cycle for Survival
During fall/winter, Conophytum present their white, yellow, lavender, orange, and occasionally red, flowers according to species. At this time, they can be misted every day (simulating their native habitat fog) and will become plump.
In the spring, the skin of Conophytum begins to thin and loses color, until finally, when the hot, dry days of summer arrive they go dormant — they seemingly retreat into a dry, papery cocoon spun from their own skins. Watering during this time is minimal to none.
In their native South Africa, these “cocoons” allow them to endure harsh summer conditions until the autumn growing season when they bloom again. This photo shows the “cocoons” forming, turning brownish and dry.
In habitat, they often grow in micro climates next to rocks or in rock crevices that offer shelter from the harsh sun and winds. Also in habitat, they are found growing deeper in the soil than in cultivation, some with just the tops of their heads barely visible, the soil offering insulating protection.
How I Fell in Love with Conophytum
Falling in love with a sphaeroid, as Conophytum are sometimes called, is similar to falling in love with a humanoid.
You are first attracted to the handsome face, succulent lips, and beautiful figure of lovely color and texture. As the cool autumn breeze arrives, you are warmed by their stunning flowers, quickening your heartbeat.
(About the Photo: This photo provides a sneak peak into the book, “Succulents: Nature’s Sculptural Wonders” Book by Béla Kalman–it shows an old Conophytum burgeri, considered the king of Conos, in its dormant stage, inside the “cocoons.”)
My First Conophytum
In Memoriam… This is a sad story (especially for the plants) about my beginnings with Conophytum. Years ago, I purchased several Conophytum from a mail order nursery that provided them without growing instructions.
Since Conophytum are rather rare, there are few books about them. I didn’t think it was a problem and I was a bit of a “smarty pants” because I’d grown succulents since I was in high school.
When at the start of summer, they began to turn yellowish and dry, I believed something was wrong with them, and thought they were dying! I didn’t know that they formed sheaths and went into a dormant period.
They continued to seemingly “dry out” looking papery and dead. In my ignorance, I tossed them out.
This story illustrates the importance of understanding and honoring plants’ growth cycles. The good news is that you don’t have to make the same mistake that I did. The information in this article should get you off to a good start.
Well-Draining Soil is a Must! Since Conophytum are quite adaptable to various soils, you will find many different recipes available, but what they all have in common is that they are well-draining.
The easiest mix for starting out, is a commercial cactus and succulent mix to which you will add 50% pumice. If you are not able to find pumice locally, Perlite may be used as a substitute.
Diatomaceous earth is added to my mix to prevent Sciara fly larvae and root mealy bugs from enjoying a Conophytum dinner–of course, this additive is optional.
I do not add any fertilizer to the mix, as Conophytum need this only in their first few months as seedlings.
Adding gravel or small rocks as top dressing in the pot helps to stabilize the soil and support newly potted plants in staying upright.
Desert Plants Need Water, Too! Because these are desert plants, they don’t need much water, right? Well, that is partially correct. Depending on their growth phase, the needs are different.
Summer Water – When the plants have retreated into their protective ‘cocoon’ to rest for the summer, they need almost no water. I will very lightly mist them every two weeks or so in my dry climate, nothing more. If your climate is humid, you most likely should not mist or water at all during this period.
Winter Water – During the winter growing season, following their flowering, they appreciate a daily fine misting and are lightly watered approximately once a week.
Water that would cause them to rot during the dormant season, makes them thrive in the active season.
Excessive watering can cause cracked skin which will leave scars, so use caution. When they look nice and plump, you might skip a day of misting, or stretch out the days between watering.
In their natural habitat, Conos are misted with fog in the winter period–it is good to emulate this in cultivation–you should “be the fog” (with a spray mister) and water lightly every 1-2 weeks (adjust for a humid climate).
Many growers are using the municipal water source for watering plants. If your water is very hard and chlorinated, as it is where I live, you may want to let the water sit for a day or so to let the chlorine evaporate, and then add a little white vinegar (1 tsp. to 5 gallons) to reduce the hardness.
What I do instead, is use the same reverse-osmosis filtered water that I drink–free of chlorine and other contaminants and without the minerals that make water hard.
I’ve not seen this recommended elsewhere, but I figure that these plants usually receive only mist or rainfall in habitat, so using filtered water like this is closer to nature–I think the results speak for themselves– my plants are growing well.
Most Conophytum like a lot of light, with protection from the mid-day sun which can be quite harsh here in the southwestern USA, and actually burn the plants. I have read that in the UK, it is probably impossible to give these plants too much light.
It is important to adjust for your climate. It is sometimes possible to place a a rock strategically so that when the sun is hottest, there is a shadow on the plant from the rock, in the same way they survive in the South African desert.
Some of the plants have particular preferences, C. burgeri likes the brightest spot and C. stephanii, prefer semi- shaded spot. Individual plant preferences can be found in Steven Hammer’s “Dumpling and his Wife,” a wonderful reference, the source of this statement.
Love is Very Important – I’m Not Kidding
Plants need love, too! If love means paying attention, addressing an individual’s needs, that is what I am talking about. Maybe I have read too many of Steven Hammer’s writings, but you must allow for individuality and the needs of each plant.
I don’t think you can put a misting system on a timer and have good results. I did this once in an emergency situation; some plants survived, but there were many losses.
The plants will show signs of their needs; you must learn to read them, as you would a person that you love. They may be very, very plump–give no more water for awhile. The skin may be wrinkled during the growing season–give it a drink of water.
The plant stays wrinkled despite watering/misting–check for root loss. The plant produces a bud, but fails to flower–this can also be root loss.
At the end of spring, the skin is turning yellowish and drying out–allow it to go dormant and do nothing. This is love.
How to Pot Conophytum Plants
Once you’ve gathered your materials, these are the steps:
Step 1 – Measure the ingredients for the soil recipe. Place them into a bowl.
Quick Potting Mix Recipe
- 1 cup Soil Mix (no added fertilizer)
- 1 cup Pumice (Perlite may be substituted)
- 1 tsp. Diatomaceous Earth (optional)
- Gardening Gloves
Step 2 – Mix the soil components thoroughly with a spoon.
Step 3 – Cut or tear a small piece of newspaper and cover the hole in the bottom of the pot. This will prevent soil from leaking out and still allow for water drainage.
Step 4 – Fill the pot about half to a third full, depending on the size of the plant’s roots.
Step 5 – Place the plant in the center of the pot and spoon the potting mix gently around the roots until they are completely covered (just up to the bottom of the plant’s body). Level the soil with a spoon.
Step 6 – Add your top dressing, either gravel or stones. Natural gravel for fish aquariums works well (shown in photos above).
Step 7 – Water lightly. Resume a normal Cono watering schedule.
Best Book on Rare Conophytum is Also Rare
Dumpling & His Wife: New Views on the Genus Conophytum by Steven Hammer
This is the book you’ll want when you get serious about growing Conophytum. All the information you need to grow these plants well is included in this book.
This book is written by the reknowned and witty Steven Hammer, who has studied these plants in their African habitat and works with them every day at his Sphaeroid Institute in California.
In this book, Mr. Hammer has partnered with other experts on the subject and included their valuable insights as well. Individual species are described in detail. Many beautiful photographs by Chris Barnhill are included. This is a book for the botanist and the collector as well.
A rare book about rare plants, it is currently out-of-print, but used copies can be found with a little good research. It is well worth the search. I found my copy in a month’s time.
Available Intermittently from rare and used book sellers.
Here’s a great video on care