There are about 580 species of Aloes — mostly from Africa. The Arabic word “alloeh” means bitter. “Vera” is Latin for real. Modern science indicates Aloe Vera originated in arid Arabia. Most aloes are nontoxic, but Aloe vera became the prevalent medicinal species.
Real bitter Aloe Vera has been used for at least 6,000 years for its healing properties. Because it grew along the ancient Silk Road to and from China, this useful species was transported and grown across Asia, in Africa, around Europe, eventually introduced to the Americas, Australia and habitable oceanic islands in between. Several synonyms, common names and regional varieties developed.
Today Aloe Vera is used to treat wounds, scratches and minor burns; sooth hemorrhoids; ease stomachaches and constipation; combat hair loss; and more. Plants are readily available from private and big box nurseries. Named cultivars and hybrids are available online through plant growers’ websites.
Ornamental succulent Soap Aloe, Aloe maculata, is a perennial, drought-tolerant, evergreen plant grown globally in mild temperate, subtropical and arid tropical climates. Originally from drier regions of eastern South Africa in Botswana and Zimbabwe, Soap Aloe became a popular species globally.
Soap Aloe grows throughout peninsular Florida in USDA cold hardiness zones 8 to 11. The stemless basal rosette of thick, fleshy, jelly-filled leaves is frost tender. Leaf tips will be damaged by heavy frost. Further north, it can be used as a succulent houseplant or container specimen. Long hard freezes kill the entire top growth; if roots survive, a new plant may emerge in spring.
Soap aloe leaves are pale blue-green with flecks of white in horizontal bands. Leaf edges, called margins, are armed with prickles. Wide, plump leaves grow about 10 to 12 inches long. Hence, the rosette diameter can be 20 to 24 inches in diameter and up to a foot tall. The jelly-like, nontoxic sap inside the leaves is used to cleanse and soothe mild burns and scratches, and as a soap substitute.
Mature aloes develop small pup plantlets around the base and nearby from root runners. These pups are easily dug up and severed from the parent. Plant in full sun to part shade in well-drained sandy soil. Although aloes reproduce easily, they are not aggressive or invasive. Clusters of aloe make a bold-looking garden accent. Plants in part shade are plumper, healthier-looking, and are somewhat protected from light frosts by surrounding vegetation or structures. In full sun and hot dry conditions, leaf tips may dry and die — particularly from April to June in Florida’s dry spring season.
Branched flower stalks grow 1 to 3 feet tall with a cluster of attractive orange flowers at the top. Some varieties have redder or yellower flowers. Tubular aloe flowers have pollen and nectar that attracts pollinators, butterflies and hummingbirds in my garden. Aloes need no supplemental fertilizer, irrigation or regular maintenance. Soap Aloe is salt-tolerant in coastal gardens.
A little history: In 1926, a young Danish immigrant, Harry E. Rosedale, opened a 10-acre nursery in Monrovia, California to produce stronger, more beautiful plants. In 1941, Monrovia was among the first U.S. breeders to trademark a plant with trademarked Rosedale Pyracantha. Monrovia now grows six pyracantha varieties. By 1953, Rosedale moved the family business to Azusa, California. By the 1960s, Monrovia’s gardener-friendly plant tags became the plant industry’s standard. In the 1970s, Monrovia began recycling irrigation runoff. Monrovia farms in Cairo, Georgia, Connecticut, Oregon and Visalia, California each cover hundreds of acres. The Azusa office is now surrounded by condos.
Monrovia’s hybrid Blue Elf Aloe has narrow, upright, blue-gray succulent leaves 1 to 2 feet tall. Blue Elf is a xeric (drought-tolerant) perennial evergreen in USDA cold zones 9–11 but is not freeze-tolerant. It repeat-blooms in warmer months with clusters of orange flowers radiating from the single flower stalk. Low-maintenance Blue Elf grows well in nutrient-poor, sandy, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade.
Compact, repeat-blooming, fast-growing, clump-forming Safari Orange Aloe has large showy spikes of vivid orange flowers on 3-foot-tall unbranched flower stalks. The succulent, evergreen inclined leaves have soft margin teeth.
Grow aloes in full sun to light filtered shade in sandy well-drained soil. Use as an accent in a pot or rock garden or in mass plantings. After establishment, water aloes occasionally during drought or extreme heat.
Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Contact her at [email protected] or phone 352-249-6899.