Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
December, 2011
Regional Report

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Aloes will bloom nearly all year indoors or outside.

Grow Easy Aloes

There is a plant group that has something for everybody and deserves more attention than it gets. Aloes are much more than burn cures.

Choose Aloe Species
500 species, or particular types, of aloes have been identified, all native to Africa. Some derive from deserts, others from tropical mountains, but all are flowering succulent plants that are widely grown worldwide. The plants grow as a rosette, range in size from tiny clumps to huge and treelike, and bloom with tall clusters of tubes that are usually orange or pink, but can be red or even white.

Aloe vera, or true aloe, is the most commonly cultivated of the bunch and is prized for the soothing qualities of the gel that forms its leaves. It has long been used to ease the pain of burns and bug bites, and its extract is found at groceries and drugstores everywhere. My father and his Lodge buddies put it in milk shakes and swore it settled their tummies. I keep a pot by the back door and break off a leaf whenever I accidentally touch the stove or iron, which is too often.

Sunset aloe, or Aloe dorotheae, grows its rosette of red leaves with spikes along its edges and reminds me of earth star or Cryptanthus. Sunset seems to be more drought tolerant than true aloe, as is Aloe ferox, also called cape aloe or ferocious aloe. This one has deep orange flowers in late winter and spring on stems that can reach more than 6 feet tall. It is a staple of tropical gardens for its strong form and reliable habits.

Explore Aloe Hybrids
From among the many aloes come hybrids with excellent garden habits, indoors and out. They are sometimes the sole survivors of mixed container pots that have been left unwatered for weeks. Their tough nature is one reason to grow them, as is their propensity to propagate even when neglected.

'Gator' is a little beauty with crazy striped leaves that curl slightly downward. It is a fine filler plant in those mixed containers, but also a cozy succulent houseplant that adds contrast to any grouping. 'Twilight Zone' aloe has nubby white bumps covering medium green leaves in frothy effect that is charming. It is a larger plant than 'Gator' and flowers more often with shell pink tubes edged in a sherbet orange. 'Grassy Lassie' is a stiff, loose clump of dark bottle green leaves with stunning flower spikes. It seldom stops blooming and is deep coral orange in full sun, with lighter tones in less light.

Aloe crossed with gastrolea produces stunning plants that are squatty with thick pointed leaves. They are formidable looking, like a rugged landscape you do not want to climb. Called gasteraloes, 'Midnight' is my favorite of these hybrids for its eggplant purple and deep green tones in its leaves.

Grow More and Better Aloes
Some aloes hug the ground, others have single stems and yet others branch like candelabra. The plants need well-drained, even sandy soil, plentiful sunlight, and minimal water and fertilizer. It is more effective to water those with low profiles from the bottom with a soaker hose in garden beds or in a saucer beneath their pot. Water when the soil feels dry to your touch, but before the leaves begin to pale from its lack.

Low light and lack of fertilizer will also pale the leaves and if left for too many weeks in very stressful conditions, they will collapse into a mushy mess as if they had been frozen.

The natural habit of aloe is to reproduce by producing offsets, small plants at the base of the main one. The offsets can be left to multiply and fill a space, or separated into individual new plants. If roots are present when an offset is removed, simply pot it up. If not, slip the baby into a mix of sand and potting mix to root. Small aloe plants can be top heavy and tip over after planting; offer a stone or piece of bark as a support when needed so it can lean without falling.

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