Drawn to aloe’s carefree allure


Few things are more beautiful than aloes in bloom, and outside of our exquisitely adapted native flora, few plants are better suited to our arid climate than this most statuesque of succulents. Yet in the last half-century, aloes have fallen from fashion.

There are many theories as to why this has happened, but in my own case, it was because I got the aloes for free. If people were giving them away, something had to be wrong with them.

And, boy, do people give them away. Because aloes are succulents, and most succulents root quickly from the stem with little or no signs of stress, there is no shortage of free plants. Thinning an aloe garden can produce such a haul of viable new plants that Southern Californian succulent specialist Debra Lee Baldwin says, “Ask for a cutting and people will give you a wheelbarrow.”


That said, the only time of year when people in their right minds won’t cut back their aloe is now. Soon these plants will be throwing up long stalks that by Christmas should be topped by elegant collections of orange flowers. Or yellow -- the colors vary depending on the species.

There are hundreds. The aloe that we’re most likely to spot in L.A. is Aloe arborescens. If you don’t know what to look for, try following the scolding clicks of hummingbirds. As aloes bloom, the birds will be jealously guarding the winter nectar.

Or start by picturing the most familiar quality of succulents: smooth skin that allows them to hold in water by day, then mysteriously respire by night. It’s the thing that makes them so water-efficient. Now picture that smooth skin on foot-long tapered leaves, lightly serrated. The leaves should be a subtle blue-green with yellow and mauve tinting around the edges.

Next, imagine these blue-green, yellow- and mauve-tinted leaves grouped in a rosette, almost like a starfish. Finally, picture that starfish-shaped rosette throwing up its leaves in a euphoric greeting to the sun.

Then freeze the moment at its most graceful.

Simply put, aloe is to plants what the Walt Disney Concert Hall is to buildings.

Like so many of the nonnative plants that adapt well to California, aloes come from South Africa, where the Mediterranean climate is similar to our own.

According to the website, published by the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the name aloe derives from Greek, Arabic and Hebrew words all meaning “bitter” and refers to the taste of the juice from the succulent’s leaves. The arborescens tag is botanical Latin for “tree-like.”

I haven’t tasted the juice and don’t plan to. However, I agree with the Biodiversity Institute when it questions “tree-like” as an appropriate descriptor. A typical height for Aloe arborescens in the garden, with prudent trimming or breaking under its own weight, is 3 or 4 feet.

It’s so perfect as a hedge plant that an institute essay remarks that it was used in South Africa as natural fencing for cattle corrals. Evidently, even when farms have been abandoned, the flowering pens remain.

Ten years ago, when a neighbor ripped out a lovely succulent garden that had probably been there for the better part of the last century, my roommate rushed out to pot up some of the fallen cuttings. Long after she moved on, I was left trimming her rescues and potting up the pups until I had a small army of aloe and jade.

I came to like the plants as garden accents and movable screens, but I used them in shady places, so they never got enough sun (or water) to flower.

Last year, a ferocious travel schedule prompted the decision to free the aloes from their pots. I would not be around much to water, and I needed to replace a large bed of senescent lavender lest I return home to a brush fire.

There was no need to make a trip to a nursery. There, in waiting, were the potted aloes. I didn’t even bother untangling their roots; rather, I severed the plants at the stem and planted the new cuttings directly into the soil. Then I watered the cuttings for a month to get them established.

After that, my house-sitter watered them, when they were lucky -- and that wasn’t often. On visits home, seeing the aloe denied water led to the observation that the plants will become redder and the leaves will curl inward under stress. It also led to the observation that aloes will quickly become plump and green with a shower or two.

During a year of largely neglecting my garden, I deduced that aloes need nothing in the winter, will appreciate but not demand a monthly watering in spring and fall, and could use weekly watering in the fiercest weeks of summer. Sprinkling their leaves helps keep the pores clear of smog and grit.

For this, aloes not only will survive but also will reward neglect with almost incomprehensible beauty. Upon my return home last fall, where dying lavender had been, I found a strong, young bed of aloes putting out a stunning array of bright orange flowers.

Awe was tinged with regret. My garden didn’t need me.

The experience has led me to expand the aloe garden. Plant cost? Zero. Labor? A day. The logic: Why waste water and time and money on the wrong plants? Why spend two or three thousand bucks a year on a weekly mow-and-blow crew when I can have this?

On top of occasional watering, one pass a year -- trimming of withered flower stalks and pruning -- will take care of an aloe garden.

What I still can’t quite comprehend is how doing the right thing for our water supply and my finances was easier than doing the wrong thing with a lawn and conventional shrubs.

But, mainly, how could such splendor be free?

Green is a freelance writer.