One common herb stands apart from all the rest. It’s medicinal, it’s African, it’s a succulent, and it doesn’t mind being left alone, forgotten and neglected. You know it, because everybody knows aloe. But how about growing aloe? One doesn’t have to be a gardener to be able to recognize and name that Aloe vera on the windowsill and know how to slice open a thick leaf to rub a soothing, cooling natural gel on sunburned skin.
But this common, useful plant, the “true aloe” according to the botanists who named it, has also drawn many of us into a whole array of other Aloe species. In recent decades, the garden marketplace has fallen in love with aloes, as well as their prickly cacti cousins and other succulents, and drought-tolerant plants in general. Here in hot, dry Texas, where I live, many fascinating aloes are now frequently available, including species, hybrids and varieties originally from tropical regions on the other side of the world, such as South Africa, Madagascar, Tanzania and the Arabian Peninsula. These worldly aloes come in many shapes, sizes, hues and habits. Click here to see all of our aloe images.
Aloe is a genus of more than 400 succulent species, and it’s related to other increasingly common and collectable succulents, such as haworthias and gasterias. Thick, fleshy aloe leaves grow in rosettes, either directly from the ground or sometimes climbing a stem, and it has stalks of tubular flowers in shades of yellow, orange, pink and red. There are a few that don’t survive well outside their native habitats, but the vast majority of the aloes are very easy to grow in containers on the patio that are moved inside for the winter or protected from frost. They are more often killed by too much water than too little and are very forgiving plants for novice and collector alike.
A Passion for Growing Aloe
Joni Pierce is a serious aloe collector in Austin, Texas, who got sucked into the world of succulents when she was still a student at the University of Texas in the late 1980s. When she was moving into her first apartment, she bought a cactus as part of her Southwestern decorating theme, which was all the rage at the time. She laughs as she tells this story, standing in her greenhouse surrounded by thousands of succulents that are now such a huge part of her life.
I first met Joni at the Natural Gardener, an organic nursery in Austin (where we both work part-time). She handles plant inventory control, keeping the botanical names straight and ensuring that every hardy plant gets a label loaded with data pertinent to growing it in Central Texas. Here, her passion and the depth of her knowledge make her the undisputed succulent queen.
Joni estimates her collection at 8,000 to 10,000 succulents, among them about 300 different Aloe species and varieties. The odd thing, at least to some people, is that she seems to have a personal relationship with each and every one of the plants that fill her greenhouse, her sunroom, and every nook and cranny of her house, inside and out.
“Some of the aloes I keep in the house just because I love them so much,” she admits, pointing to the tiny A. descoingsii, native to Madagascar, off the southeastern coast of Africa. It is probably the smallest of the aloes.
Nearby is an A. ferox, whose name fits its ferocious, barbed look. It is native to South Africa, has a gel in its leaves similar to A. vera, a bitter sap that is purgative and laxative; it is widely used, along with A. vera, in the huge commercial aloe industry.
Another not-to-be-missed aloe is A. dorotheae, an attractive Tanzanian native with shiny, sometimes lime-green leaves, which when gradually acclimated to stronger sunlight can take on a brilliant coppery red. It has a habit of suckering freely, and those offsets are known in the succulent world as “pups”, each of which can be separated and rooted to become another full-grown plant. Free plants for all your friends—how great is that?
Why does Joni love them so much? “It’s their power of survival,” she explains. “It’s not because they’re so easy, but rather a respect for the abuse they can take, how they could have survived in such harsh native environments, and how they can recover from my own neglect and abuse.” She notices an overlooked little pot of A. capitata and picks it up, roots dangling out the bottom of the pot where it had rooted itself into the ground when she wasn’t paying attention. “See?”
Beautiful in Their Succulent Species Spiny-ness
Generally, aloes are beautiful only to those of us who love succulents and are drawn to their architecture and structure, even their weirdness. But looking at the genus as a whole, there is a stunning diversity among the species, varieties and many hybrids, which range from downright ugly (until they throw up a stalk and bloom) to truly beautiful. In their growing habits, they range from small grassy plants to large trees. They can be seen in photographs sometimes growing upside down out of sheer rocky cliffs, clinging to survival.
The A. polyphylla, for example, grows in a perfectly geometrical spiral pattern that is breathtaking. It is endangered and often doesn’t survive outside its native alpine environment (at high elevations in South Africa). It is sometimes seen in the nursery trade, grown from tissue culture or seed as it doesn’t offset pups like most aloes, but is difficult to grow at home. (“I’ve killed four of them,” Joni says.)
But most of the aloes range from easy to ridiculously easy to grow. The beauty of A. aristata, another South African, with white spots, delicately toothed edges and tips that end in filaments, belies its toughness. The distinctive A. variegata, called partridge-breasted aloe, has thick, triangular leaves and a tomboy look about it.
Aloes hybridize readily and many plant breeders are turning their attention to the Aloe genus. A well-known California aloe grower, Kelly Griffin, has created many cultivars of dwarf to medium-sized aloes with textured leaves, some cute, some handsome, all unusual and collectable. One example, called ‘Lavender Star’ has nubby leaves and looks like a sea creature; ‘Pink Blush’ is charming with its pink margins and white ridges on the leaves, while ‘Grassy Lassie’ has green succulent leaves that somehow manage to look like grass.
Most of these aloes don’t have the extreme usefulness of the ubiquitous A. vera, but they share its easy, carefree spirit. For the collector like Joni, for plant nerds the world over, and for all of us who look on in wonder at the power and diversity of the natural world, the aloes are an endless source of delight.
The Aspects of Growing Aloe
Aloes are easy. If you get busy and forget to water them or repot them, they’ll forgive you and get over it.
“I grow them hard,” says succulent collector Joni Pierce, meaning that her aloes don’t expect any particular pampering from her. That being said, there are optimal conditions for growing aloe at their best—certain guidelines to follow that apply to keeping many other tender succulents in containers, as well.
Here are Joni’s instructions:
Potting mix. Drainage is critical, so pot them in a gritty potting mix that lets water run off freely. She recommends a peat and perlite-based professional potting mix with additional sand or grit added. Try builder’s sand (also called sharp sand), decomposed granite, vermiculite or other mineral sands such as greensand, lava sand or basalt—all work well to increase the grittiness of the potting mix. You want small particles, not chunks, Joni says.
Pot size. “Make sure it’s not overpotted,” Joni says. Use small individual pots without too much extra soil; the roots should take up perhaps two-thirds of the pot when you first replant it, because if there aren’t sufficient roots to draw moisture it will sit in wet soil and won’t be happy. Then you can let it totally fill the pot, even to the point of looking root-bound, before you repot it again. “Sometimes I’ll go years without repotting,” Joni says. It’s fun to sometimes grow them with other succulents in dish gardens, but the collectors generally prefer one aloe, one pot.
Pot type. Aloes look great in clay or porcelain pots on the windowsills, but plastic pots are sometimes better in very warm climates like Texas. Adequate drainage holes are a must.
Watering. Move them outside in the warm season when temperatures are higher than 80 or so, which in Texas is generally April through early November, and water them about once a week. In the fall, start to back off on the watering, about once every two weeks, move them indoors and water about once a month through the winter. If growing them inside in the arid environment created by heating and air conditioning, watering about once every two weeks should be fine. Be sure each pot on the windowsill has a saucer to catch the overflow, and empty it regularly so that the roots don’t sit in water.
Sun. Aloes generally look best if grown in light shade, indirect or dappled light, rather than full sun, so patios can be perfect in the summer. Some, such as A. dorotheae, can adapt to full sun gradually and take on a very attractive color, but most aloes just turn darker and muddier if grown in too bright a light.
Food. Fertilizing is not too important, but even the aloes appreciate a bit every now and then. Joni recommends a slow-release granular fertilizer or a diluted solution (a third to half the recommended rate for container plants) of a liquid fertilizer; choose one with a higher phosphorus content (the second of the three numbers on fertilizers) to promote flowering. Too much fertilizer or too high a concentration will push out soft, weak new growth, and the plant won’t be as strong.
Pests. About the only pest that bothers an aloe is the microscopic aloe mite, which can distort or deform leaves and even kill plants altogether. It’s not often a problem for home gardeners, according to Joni, but in large greenhouse collections it can be devastating. Dunking the leaves in a strong solution of soapy water can help, she says.
Contributing Editor Kathleen Halloran gardens in beautiful Austin, Texas.