Aloe hybrids are a little harder to find information for in regards to care, particularly when you compare them to a specific species (which usually has locale data associated).
When you find an ambiguously labeled “star aloe hybrid”, what should you do to encourage best coloration and growth?
While every aloe hybrid is not the same, obviously, many of the smaller star hybrids have extremely similar cultivation and care requirements. You can choose to increase or decrease stress in various ways to encourage brighter coloration, faster growth, or pupping. I’ll review some of my cultivation tips and rules of thumb for growing these brilliantly colored hybrids.
Pots and Soil for your Aloe Hybrid
Whether you have a Kelly Griffin hybrid, a Karen Zimmerman hybrid, or some other hybrid from some famous hybridizer, they all generally seem to thrive in the same soil and potting parameters.
You’ll want something well-draining and porous, which holds some moisture but not too much. These aloes do best when they have some time to absorb moisture after being watered, but shouldn’t be soggy for weeks at a time.
Depending on the soil brands you have around you, you should expect to add 25% to 50% additional pumice or perlite to the soil to encourage good drainage and space for root growth. If you’re using a miracle grow blend, or one with little to no existing pumice visible in the blend, then add significantly more pumice than you would to a quality mix that has different sized components such as bark, large pumice stones, and different textured organic materials.
Your goal should be that the soil dries out completely by about 1 week if you’ve watered it very thoroughly. Thoroughly in this case means you check the soil and it is completely saturated in the entire pot, top to bottom. For my growing conditions, this means straight E.B. Stone succulent mix with no additional pumice, and occasionally, I need to add some coconut fiber or peat moss to the mix to retain more water for plants that are kept in extremely bright and hot areas.
The pot you use should only be slightly larger than the current pot the plant is in. While the aloe hybrids will cheerfully take over larger pots, given time, they grow faster and happier when they don’t have too much room for the roots to expand first. Pots that are overly sized for the root ball also won’t dry out evenly, leaving pockets of soggy soil that can lead to rot, bacteria, and/or the death of your aloe.
A quick note on tissue cultured plants
Many of the Kelly Griffin hybrids are available as tissue cultured specimens which have been grown in a highly organic, peat-moss-y type nursery mix that holds onto moisture for quite a long time. If you found your hybrid at a big box store, or it looks like it might be nearly a clone of a specific named hybrid, it probably is a tissue cultured clone of a particularly attractive plant. That’s fine!
Other hybridizers might also have tissue cultured plants available, but they are less prevalent than the ones from Kelly Griffin. You may not see the hybrid labeled as a “Kelly Griffin hybrid”, but most hybrids you find at big box stores are a production of his efforts.
There’s nothing wrong with these tissue cultured specimens, and they are a fantastic way to get a plant with a distinct, predictable appearance you’ll enjoy. Just be wary of overly young or small plants (as you would with any other type of growth method), and if you can, gently wiggle the aloe you’re hoping to buy to see how well rooted it is. If it feels loose in the pot or worse, feels like you might be able to just pluck it right off the soil, it’s not well established and you should look for a different plant.
If you’re more confident, you can still grab the plant, and just repot it almost immediately after bringing it home. The soil used often stays too soggy for too long, and tends to rot the roots of larger plants that have stayed in their nursery soil for too long. For growers who already are confident in their soil mix and ability to grow aloes, you can simply stick a completely rootless aloe head onto fresh soil and it will likely be rooted within a month.
Common Tissue Cultured Varieties:
A few of the most common varieties found as tissue cultured specimens, although certainly far from all of them. If this looks like a list of plants I own…there is definitely a lot of overlap!
- Aloe Firecracker
- Aloe Oik
- Aloe Christmas Sleigh
- Aloe AJR
- Aloe Swordfish
- Aloe Lavender Star
- Aloe Krakatoa
- Aloe Purple People Eater
- Aloe Sidewinder
- Aloe Purple Haze
sWatering Your Aloes
Designer aloe hybrids are unlike species aloes in that they tend to thrive on consistency. They’re not plants that exist in the wild, and as artificially created hybrids, there’s no real season or environment they need to thrive.
Broadly speaking, they do best when they have warm to moderate temperatures (70 – 90F), and get watered when dry. In winter, they need far less water, especially if temperatures are expected to drop close to freezing, and they should be protected from temperatures that stay below 50F for extended periods. They are fine if your night time lows hit 30F (all of mine have experienced this), but they need the day time to get back up into 50 or 60F.
When the weather warms up, though, regular water is the name of the game. If you want to see growth and pupping, they need water within a day or two of their soil drying out.
If you want to see intense color, however, you can let them stretch for days at a time. A tell-tale sign that they are under-watered and you should expect that their colors are indicating water stress is the curling of the leaves. The lavender star above has that very typical C-shaped curve of the leaves, which is due to consistently little water.
The lavender star has the C shape, as well a sun stress, contributing to the coloration, and is at the edge of where I like to keep my aloe hybrids for best color.
Above is an Aloe Oik, and one that is very, very, VERY thirsty. In fact, that’s bordering on death-level thirsty, so you should try to keep yours a little better watered that this poor thing.
Note the leaf curvature, and how many leaves have almost formed an “O” instead of a “C”. That is a pretty strong indicator of high stress, and particularly, of low water.
The soil in this spot is very poor, and it drains quickly, so even if I water almost daily, it is hard to keep enough water in the area for the aloes to thrive. I need to work on some drip irrigation to better plant this area, especially if I want to continue growing the aloes here.
For Best Stress, You Need Light
After you’ve potted your aloe in nice, well draining soil, and you’ve got the watering down, the third main ingredient is light.
For your aloe hybrids to look their best, they need at least some exposure to direct sunlight. In greenhouse conditions, particularly for the mass-produced tissue cultured clones, they are usually grown with significant shade during the day, so you see far more green in their leaves. When you get them home, they need slow exposure to higher levels of direct sunlight to encourage sun stress and intense coloration.
Straight From the Nursery
Aloe Sidewinder when I picked these up from the nursery. They were all similar levels of green with barely orange texture, and I slowly moved them from my sheltered greenhouse out to increasing levels of sunlight during the day.
Aloe Krakatoa the day I brought the group home from the nursery. Lots of green, some orange edging, nothing too crazy.
Aloe Krakatoa about 8 months later. The parts that face the sun get a more brown/orange hue, while the shaded sides get a deep green.
The texture went from pale green/white to raised orange lines, and the leaf margins are practically neon.
The leaves are also tighter and closely clumped, rather than the more relaxed growth they had in the higher shade of their nursery greenhouse.
Aloe Delta Rose is one of my favorite transformations – check this out. Just a hint of pink on the edges, and mostly a green base with white-pink texture. Cool, yes, but not exactly super special… or is it?
This doesn’t even look like the same plant, but they ARE.
Slow acclimatization to sunlight, and then nearly full sun exposure for most of the day will get you this beautiful, deep red aloe with lavender-purple background.
About 6 months difference between these photos. The one on the right was slightly larger than the one pictured left, but color was the same.
How to acclimate your aloes to sunlight
You can’t just bring an aloe that’s been nursery grown and stick it straight into full sunlight. This is triple the case for any aloe hybrids you find at a big box store and they happen to be kept inside, even if they are next to a door.
If you’ve found a hybrid that’s been indoors, or in heavily shaded nursery conditions, it’s often best to wait to repot it. First, give it a couple days in a shaded spot, preferably full shade if it’s a plant that was indoors when you found it.
Bit by bit, move it to increasingly levels of sun over the course of 2 – 4 weeks. You can also use shade cloth for part of the day, putting it on and taking it off, but I assume you, like me, have a day job and can’t be out there flipping cloth on your delicate babies.
Above all, take your time moving the plant to increased sunlight, especially if it’s hot! While you can recuperate a plant from sunburn, it takes time, and it’s much easier to simply go slow than try to heal a sunburnt plant.
After a few weeks of acclimating to increased sun, that’s the point when you repot the plant. You could repot earlier and go slower for the move, but the aloes tend to respond better to one stressful thing at a time. Being uprooted and repotted, along with the damage to the roots (no matter how gentle you are, it happens), is a stressful event for a plant. Let your aloe get adjusted to increased sunlight before you go too crazy on new potting.
Fertilizing, in-ground planting, and other details
If you’re using a commercial succulent soil, especially one that’s mostly organic materials such as Miracle Grow or Black Gold, you don’t need to fertilize for at least six months or up to a year. The components in your fresh soil are already rich in nutrients, and Miracle Grow in particular has fertilizer already mixed into the bag of soil.
When using a grittier, chunkier mix that has more inorganic components to it, you still can and should wait at least six months before adding any fertilizer. The fresh soil will have nutrients in it, and the fertilizer is unnecessary.
After a year or two, if you are feeling generous, you can use a dilute, balanced fertilizer such as fish emulsion a few times during the summer growing season. I have lately been using Cactus Juice, which is higher in Phospohorus and Potassium, but it’s too early in my growing season yet to comment on the impact it may be having. Most of my hybrids have been in their pots less than a year, so I haven’t even fertilized them yet!
Quick refresher on Fertilizer: the three numbers you find on all fertilizer bottles display the primary nutrients in the same order. Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K). Most succulents and cacti need a higher potassium fertilizer compared to houseplants, flowers, or crops.
While most people keep their designer aloe hybrids in pots, in the right climate, there’s no reason to avoid putting them in the ground!
Many designer aloes will form clumps over time, and the above-ground plant won’t necessarily take over your garden, but their roots are quite greedy and extend surprisingly far. Keep that in mind when planting yours in the ground.
As with any succulent or cactus you plant, you’ll want to ensure there’s adequate drainage, and that the aloe won’t be hit too hard by frost or intense sun.
Making your own hybrids!
If you have multiple plants blooming at the same time, there’s no reason not to try your hand at your own hybrids. A small paintbrush is the only tool you need to pollinate the flowers! Simply stick the brush into one open flower, swirl around, then move to the other plant and repeat. Be sure to get the little stigma of the female part, but usually just going back and forth between the flowers a few times tends to get the job done.
After a few weeks, you’ll know it worked when seed pods form!
While many (if not most) named aloe hybrids are protected by patents, meaning that unlicensed propagation is prohibted (you can’t divide them up and sell the pups), creating hybrids using those plants is fair game. Make sure to keep notes on what you pollinated with what, and if you are trying to create something specific, keep the flowers protected from birds or bugs that might try to help you. Any exposed, outdoor flowers that produce seed are almost always going to be “contaminated” by some other aloe species or variety, and at best you can call them open-pollinated hybrids of the mother plant whose seeds you can see.
I’ll write a post on growing aloes from seed once I’m confident my method is working – I have several batches going so far, so I have the germination part down. The tricky part is ensuring the newly germinated baby aloes grow into properly robust seedlings!
You can follow along with my plant updates and seedling progress on my Instagram – @TrexPlants.