Growing aloe in all of its glorious colors
Aloe plants are so forgiving, so useful and so ubiquitous in Southern California, it's easy to forget that most types are not native. They're African imports, known as the plants of immortality, a favorite of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Spanish Jesuit missionaries brought it to the New World, and Christopher Columbus cited aloe, wheat, grapes and olives as the four plants necessary for human well-being. Even people with no interest in plants still recognize aloe's skin-soothing properties.
Aloe vera is the best known of the varieties, which number between 350 and 500 by various estimates. It's frequently planted in L.A.’s community gardens, ranking as one of the most popular medicinal plants. The gel within the Aloe vera leaves contains chemicals that improve circulation and act as an antibacterial agent. It’s used for sunburn, bruises, psoriasis, osteoarthritis and even baldness.
Some aloes grow as ornamental trees, shrubs, vines or ground covers. They can thrive in poor soil, are drought tolerant and, by virtue of water stored in its leaves, can act as a natural fire retardant. The fleshy leaves may be mottled, striped or solid, with skin that is green, purple, brown or gray.
The distinctive tubular blooms, highly attractive to hummingbirds, can be red, pink, orange, yellow or white. Most flower in spring, although at Worldwide Exotics nursery in Lake View Terrace, many are in bloom now.
“They think it’s spring,” said Shelley Jennings, who with husband Ken and daughter Sara grows aloes from seed, patiently waiting five years or more to see a flower.
Part of the appeal is simplicity. Aloes require almost no maintaining, although pruning the lower outer leaves and removing the pups will encourage growth. The only thing the plants don't like is a soggy footing.
“We tell people, ‘Don’t take care of it, and it will love you,’ ” Ken Jennings said. “You can just break it off, put it in the ground, and it will grow.”
Although you can see aloe in just about every neighborhood in Southern California, the Aloe Walk at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, containing 106 varieties, might be the best place to view the diversity of the genus.
-- Jeff Spurrier
The Global Garden, our look at this multicultural city through the lens of its landscapes, appears on Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.
Corrected: An earlier version of this post misspelled Ro Kumar's first name as Ko.
Photo credits: Ann Summa