The Dry Garden: Hesperaloe, a name to remember


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Four years ago, I learned that a lady up the street whom I had for six years referred to as Chloe was named Cheryl. In much the same fashion, I only recently learned that a plant in my parkway that for five years I have called nolina is in fact Hesperaloe parviflora.

I learned this while singing the plant’s praises to a gardening class that had dropped by to see my rain catchment system.


If there is comfort in this, it’s that hesperaloe is one heck of a plant by any name.

A member of the agave family and native to the Chihuahuan Desert, hesperaloe’s tolerance for cold (to 12 degrees) and heat (100-plus degrees) means that the plant can cope easily with what our Mediterranean climate can throw at it. Unlike many agaves and yuccas, it’s compact. At 5 years old, it’s about 3 feet in diameter and height. Like many of its relations among the agaves, yuccas and dracenas, Hesperaloe parviflora is stoic. It appears to appreciate some summer water, maybe once a month, but it can go without.

Hesperaloe’s slender, blade-like leaves are similar to South African aloe’s except the tips and edges are not particularly sharp or hard, making hesperaloe an excellent parkway or pathway plant. Brushing up against one probably wouldn’t draw blood from anyone but Romanov.

A hint to a more fundamental difference between it and South African aloe may be found in the threads that form and curl along the leaves, which catch the light and give the otherwise modest plants exceptional luminosity at dawn and sunset. Cut a leaf, and unlike the mushy insides of South African aloe, the flesh of hesperaloe has a strong, relatively dry structure composed of more fibrous threads. Start peeling segments back and they will divide evenly, without breaking. It comes as no surprise that these leaves have long been used by Native Americans for cord and rope, or that the paper industry is investigating their potential for pulp.

If you know a stingy neatnik, hesperaloe would make a great gift. It grows in a tidy clump, and as it becomes established, it can be divided into more tidy clumps in late fall. But make sure that the stingy neatnick appreciates occasional bouts of flamboyance. In early spring through late autumn, hesperaloe throws up 5-foot-tall flower stalks, which bloom in a good hot red, cream and yellow when most of our natives are dormant.

Late summer nectar is precious stuff in the dry garden. In the wild, hesperaloe’s pollinator would be a yucca moth; in Los Angeles, it’s likely to be a hummingbird, at least by day. The height of the inflorescences makes it a good plant for cat owners because the foraging zone is out of easy pouncing range.

Letting Chloe become Cheryl was difficult. The first name suited that elegant stranger up the street. The switch from nolina to hesperaloe will be easier. Getting the name right is important in the case of a plant so worthy of recommendation. -- Emily Green


Green’s column on low-water gardening appears here on Fridays.

Photo, top: A flower stalk of Hesperaloe parviflora rises from a clump of the plant’s long, narrow, green leaves. The blue-green groundcover surrounding the clump is Senecio mandraliscae. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times

Photo, middle: Spiny hesperaloe rises next to a boulder. Credit: Emily Green

Photo, bottom: A detail of the hesperaloe’s dry, fibrous leaves. Credit: Emily Green