The Goods on Growing Aloe

Growing aloe is easy, and the fascinating aloe genus is a boon to beginners.

| December/January 2012

  • Aloes are easy to grow. If you get busy and forget to water them, they’ll forgive you and get over it.
  • Generally, aloes are beautiful only to those of us who love succulents. But looking at the genus as a whole, there is a stunning diversity among the species, varieties and many hybrids.
    Photo by Nova/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons
  • Aloe dorotheae can turn red when exposed to the sun.
    Photo by Stan Shebs/Creative Commons
  • Aloe ferox, whose name fits its ferocious, barbed look, is native to South Africa.
    Photo by Marco Schmidt/Creative Commons
  • Aloe polyphylla grows in a perfectly geometrical spiral pattern that is breathtaking.
    Photo by Stan Shebs/Creative Commons
  • Aloe polyphylla is endangered and often doesn’t survive outside its native alpine environment (at high elevations in South Africa).
    Photo by Stan Shebs/Creative Commons
  • The distinctive Aloe variegata, called partridge-breasted aloe, has thick, triangular leaves and a tomboy look about it.
    Photo by Kurisu rs/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons
  • Joni Pierce’s collection consists of 8,000 to 10,000 succulents, with about 300 different aloes.
    Photo by Joni Pierce

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.

Learn how to grow successful aloe plants in "Tips for Growing Aloe Vera."

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.

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