Old World Succulents
Aloes can be found natively in Madagascar and South Africa, for the most part, with some species occuring in Jordan, the Arabian Peninsula, and even a handful of islands in the Indian Ocean. Their hardiness and popularity as a cultivated xeriscape plant has resulted in them becoming naturalized in a few other regions, including the Mediterranean, many areas in India, Australia, the Hawaiian islands, and much of North and South America.
Types of Aloes
There are roughly 12 groups of Aloe species, although that may depend on who you ask. I’ll be referencing the book “Guide to the Aloes of South Africa” by Ben-Erik Van Wyk and Gideon F. Smith, and their methodology for describing and sorting many species.
The 12 groups for South African (and, assumingly, other regions) are:
- Tree Aloes
- Single-Stemmed Aloes
- Multi-Stemmed Aloes
- Rambling Aloes
- Creeping Aloes
- Stemless Aloes
- Speckled Aloes
- Spotted Aloes
- Dwarf Aloes
- Slender Aloes
- Grass Aloes
- Bulbous Aloes
Aloes will readily cross pollinate with each other, resulting in numerous natural hybrids and plenty of opportunity for designer hybrids.
In the wild, they are only likely to hybridize with similar enough species that are flowering at a similar time, but our gardens offer unusual timing and pairing opportunities. This leads to a phenomenon known as “Garden Hybrids”, which often strongly resemble a single parent but exact lineage is impossible to determine. Any young aloes grown from open pollinated flowers in someone’s garden are likely to be garden hybrids, even if the nearest different species is the next block over.
Beloved by Pollinators
Aloes make exceptional container and landscape plants, both for their unique growth and for their attractive blooms.
Hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies all adore aloe flowers, and most true aloe species (as opposed to hybrids) are winter bloomers, providing nectar with blooms earlier than many of our native species do.
As you might guess, these are tree-like in appearance, with a distinct main trunk and branches that split off in the top portion. Rosettes tend to be small, clustered, and dead leaves do not remain stuck to the trunk or branches. Most tree aloes fall into the group Aloidendron.
Examples: A. barberae, A. dihotomum, or A. tongaense
Single Stemmed Aloes
One single stem, which can be very tree-trunk like in appearance if you cut away the retained dead leaves that tend to cover it. Sometimes is branched at top, with two or more heads, but rarely looks like a true tree with numerous small branches. Rosettes are large and distinct.
Examples: A. africana, A thraskii, A marlothii or A. ferox
Shrub-like growth habit, with multiple stems as the name suggests. Stems occur at or near ground level, as opposed to upper 1/2 or 1/3 as in more tree-like species. Leaves are usually strongly curved, either recurved or curving upward.
Examples: A. arborescens, A. claviflora, A. mutabilis or A. vanbelenii
Uncommon in US cultivation, these are short-stemmed aloes with long, narrow leaves that are only somewhat succulent. Resistant to fire, and in fact a fire may often trigger them to produce their notably large, showy flowers.
Examples: A. cooperi, A. linearifolia, A. nicholsii, or A. thompsoniae
Thin, slender, wiry-looking stems with thin leaves that are widely spaced. When stems gain some length, they often require support of some kind, or may grow in a creeping manner across the ground. Bloom stalks, or racemes, are short and have relatively few flowers compared to other groups.
Examples: A. ciliaris, A. gracilis, A. juddii, or A. tenuior
Creeps along the ground, rather than attempting to grow upright. Rosettes typically tilt to one side (due to creeping habit), and commonly have dull or dark green leaf coloration with small, harmless white teeth in the margins. Flowers in summer with racemes that are “head shaped” with large numbers of flowers.
Examples: A. arenicola, A. comptonii, A. distans, or A. pearsonii
Short, ground-growing aloes that have little to no distinct stem. Group is filled with mostly unrelated aloes, but they all share the singular rosette, close to the ground growth habit. Flowers are large, showy, and very distinct, making these very eye catching aloes.
Examples: A. aculeata, A. broomii, A. glauca, A. peglerae, or A. polyphylla
Very small, stemless aloes that only slightly resemble others of their family. Very uncommon in US cultivation. Flowers are small, dull pink or rarely white.
Examples: A. albida, A. minima, or A. saundersiae
Typically has a short stem, with plentiful small, round spots on top and underside of leaf. Tends to be found primarily in the South and Western regions of the Cape Provinces. Flowers are tubular, and do not have the more swollen base found in spotted aloes. Tends to blush brown even when well watered.
Examples: A. framesii, A. microstigma, or A. pictifolia
Short stem or none at all, with considerable spotting throughout – spots are usually oblong or H-shaped. Personally, I’d call these the speckled aloes, but what do I know? Flowers for this group usually have a distinct bulbous or inflated appearance at their base.
Examples: A. affinis, A. gracililflora, A. hahnii, or A. zebrina
Naturally, these are often small compard to other aloes, but not always miniscule. Rarely has single rosettes, and tends to clump. Leafs are usually narrow and curve inward, and raised white tubercules are also common. Flowers are typically large compared to size of the plant.
Examples: A. aristata, A. brevifolia, or A. humilis
Tiny, bulb-forming aloes that are similar in leaf appearance to grass aloes. Also rare to find in US cultivation. Flowers are small, nearly without stalks, and generally dull with the exception of A. kniphofioides.
Examples: A. bowiea, A. jeppeae, or A. modesta
A favorite species for me, this is an attractive, mid-sized growing aloe that grows with a single rosette. Can get slightly over 3′ tall and as wide; mine is about 2′ tall and wide so far.
The distinctive ‘thorns’ on the leaves are characteristic of the species, typically pale at the base with a dark black or deep red tip. These thorns tend to set the aloe apart from other species, as those growing with similar habit do not have the same thorns, and those who do have thorns tend to be tall, single-stemmed plants instead (A. marlothii or A. spectabilis being notably similar).
Blooms with a single influorescence when plants are younger, while older plants can have 3 or 4 branches. Flowers are tubular, varing from yellow to reddish orange. Some specimens have a single bloom color, and my most mature plant is one such – all the flowers are orange.
Plant shown at left was a 4″ seedling in the spring of 2018, and photo was taken summer 2021. First bloom was December 2019, and bloomed again late January 2021.
There is another aculeata just visible to the left of the largst plant which I picked up in spring of 2019, but it has not bloomed yet despite being only a year younger.
I have three other aculeatas – two possible hybrids (grown very hard in 6″ pots, spination is sparse and leaves are not as thick as my ‘true’ speices), and one imported variety “crousiana”. I have not planted the crousiana in-ground yet, but plan to in the winter of 2021.
Single Stemmed Aloe
Grows to 6 1/2′ up to 13′ tall, with large, sculpturally twisting leaves. Tends to have the old, dried or dead leaves retained along the stem.
Leaves are spreading and recurved, typically dull green to gray in larger specimens and blushing red with red spines along the edges.
Blooms with one influorescense, sometimes two, with bright yellow-orange flowers and a characteristic upwards curve.
My single seed-grown plant is young and far from showing the mature characteristics, but I look forward to this piece of living art reaching its full potential!
A Madagascar species, so it’s not technically found in my main reference books, but a gorgeous species.
It’s a cliff dwelling species that was only newly discovered in the early 2000s – 2006, I think.
Low growing and heavily branching species that develops stems that are almost like thick, ropey vines that are densely clumped. Green leaves with red tubercules and spines on the leaf edges, with some forms having smooth leaves and others having distinct lumps and bumps along the top of the leaf.
They grow the most in fall and winter, and propagate readily.
Blooms are small and simple, with a loose cluster of up to 9 flowers. They are not self fertile, and many of the commonly available aloes of this species are a tissue cultured variety that will not pollinate with others of the same culture batch.
Probably incorrect species name
I purchased this from a nursery I trust considerably, but as this plant has grown larger, it looks little to nothing like the Aloe bargalensis photos I can find online. Mine was not labeled as the Lavranos plant cultivar, which may explain it, but when looking at the Huntington Garden photos for the Lavranos, it is different enough that I question what this is.
Below is the photo at purchase, in May of 2019. I’ve moved the plant once, from my front growing area to the back “aloe slope” – growth habit is too upright to be Aloe hemmingii, but it’s quite similar in pattern. It is much larger than my Mosaic aloe, and has not bloomed yet. I’m hoping blooms will shed more light on what this is.