July 8, 2011

'Allo, 'Allo...Aloe.....What's This...?

Aloe marlothii
growing at Kirstenbosch, S. Africa
courtesy of Plantzafrica

Every few years I seem to see a group of plants in a new way, even if I have seen them for years. Occasionally I'll visit a nursery or private garden, and see plants displayed in new ways which reinforces, or perhaps more correctly, refreshes my interest in a group. Such is the case with Aloe species, and the myriad forms they come in. Pinecrest Gardens has the mixed blessing of having an arid-plant garden, in which we have several species of Aloe, especially Aloe barbadensis, one of the "Aloe vera" group, which seems to have several species in it.

flowers of Aloe marlothii
courtesy of Plantzafrica
 There is a feeling that in South Florida, succulents are tough to grow, and this is untrue. I would say that many succulents are unhappy about being plunked into a rich potting soil, outside in the back yard in a mixed landscape. Most succulents I've grown preferred a well-drained gravel-based mixture, in pots or in raised beds, and with plants of similar growing requirements. While most succulents I know can tolerate all-day sunshine and some species require it, many smaller plants like Echeveria seem to like a bit of afternoon shade. Such is true with Aloe species, which like a lot of direct sunlight, and very good drainage. The larger tree-like Aloe species like all day sunshine, and may prefer pot culture to in-ground culture here, especially in rainy weather. Pots will drain and dry out faster than in-ground soil will. Many Aloe species make great candidates for container gardens, and not all of them are very spiny. There are some species with soft teeth that won't bite back when you try to handle the plant.

some species are very petite

The iconic "vera" type is likely Aloe barbadensis, an easy-to-grow and very forgiving houseplant with wonderfully medicinal uses. The fresh juicy tissue inside the leaves can be applied to scrapes, scratches, rashes and minor cuts, with very worthwhile consequences. The wounds will heal quite nicely if fresh leaf tissue is applied twice a day, and the wound area is bandaged so that the Aloe remains in contact with the affected area. The sap will stain clothing, so be careful when handling the cut leaves. This is one plant wherein the myriad myths about a plant's medicinal powers have some truth about them. I have doctored many of my garden wounds with cut Aloe leaves and a pressure bandage, with zero scar tissue to show after a few weeks.

Aloe barbadensis
one of the commercial "vera" types
with spotted juvenile and green adult leaves

Aloe 'Cynthia Giddy'

 The species of this genus range in size from petite plants a few inches across to trees 25 feet tall. For our needs and conditions in South Florida, the spotted-leaf varieties such A. vera and A. barbadensis grow quite well as landscape plants, and even some of the larger species such as A. 'Cynthia Giddy' and A. marlothii will grow in very well-drained soils. Some of the really impressive species from South Africa really need a Mediterranean or coastal South California climate to grow best; our wet Florida summers and high humidity will set the plants back quickly. There are a number of easy-growing Aloe species for this area, and worth growing in a low-irrigation garden. Given the impending water restrictions, Aloes are once again looking like an attractive group to plant !

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

Aloe thraskii

Aloe ferox

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