Plants: Aloes

Winter flowers, hardy habits and year-round good looks – three good reasons to have an aloe in your life.
This is a tough and uncomplaining family of plants, with striking good looks.  The foliage is stiff and architectural and ranges in colour from blue-grey to blue-green. The flowers, which are rich in nectar and draw honey-eating birds into the garden, generally appear in winter, warming what can be a dull and chilly scene.
Aloes thrive in containers or in the ground, and handle heatwaves and laser-strong sun – these are plants that will look good on that challenging west-facing balcony! In pots use a succulent potting mix and in the ground make sure the position is well-drained, as wet roots will be their downfall.  Aloes in the ground won’t need to be watered once established, though plants in pots should be watered once a week or so through the warm months.
Aloe plicatilis
This stiff leaves of this aloe are shaped like tongues. They come off a single stem symmetrically, forming a fan shape.  Each stem makes its own fan, so that the plant can look like a multi handed creature waving its multi-fingers in the air. The leaves themselves are blue-grey with a white bloom, giving an effect a bit like celadon or milky jade. As if this wasn’t enough, spires of orange-red flowers are produced at the end of winter.
Aloe barberae
The tree aloe is sculptural all year round, with numerous Medusa-like heads exploding from a single trunk. The pink flowers appear in winter. It takes full sun or part shade in a pot or in the garden. If it is planted in the ground, make sure you allow enough space for its roots and canopy as it can become a large tree, up to about 5m. One of the benefits of this plant in a courtyard is that it offers the height and form of a tree, but with no leaf drop. The tree aloe is easy to propagate. Cut off an unnecessary branch, let it dry for a week or two then plant into a pot with a free-draining mix.

Big Red
Over the past four decades hybridisers have been working to make South Africa’s aloes even more striking. Big Red is one of the most successful of the many Aloe-Aloe aloes available. In winter it turns into a Baroque candelabra, with multi-stemmed branches holding dense spikes of red flowers. Once the plant is mature these spikes tower to 1.8 m tall, making a great show. For the rest of the year, the plant is a neat and well-behaved blue-green rosette of thick leaves.
Robin Powell
Picture credit: Nicholas Watt

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