The people up the road have a plant that’s forcing me to take much longer to get to the bakery than usual. I find it impossible not to stop and gawp at its brilliant orange spires, which on a cold day look like flames leaping from the bluish rosettes of foliage. It’s an aloe, specifically Aloe arborescens or candelabra aloe. There is not much else in the front garden, and the aloe’s considerable bulk and many flower spikes suggest that it’s been there for a few decades, no doubt planted the last time aloes were fashionable. You’d have to try hard to find arborescens at a nursery these days. But you might find this:
It’s a relatively new hybrid of A. arborescens called ‘Super Red’, photographed in the garden of Greg Kinman at Peregian Beach, which I visited recently on a Tastings:Noosa tour. The new aloe hybrids, with their longer-lasting, more prolific flowers are contributing to an aloe renaissance. Here’s another one from Greg’s garden, ‘Big Red’, another member of the new arborescens clan, this time still in bud.
Aborescens is one of the grander members of a big family. There are some 400 or so aloes, most of which originated in southern Africa and the nearby islands. Best known of the family is Vera, famous for her healing juices. Undaunted by a lack of rigorous scientific evidence, numbers of supermodels attribute their glowing good looks to A. vera, whether swallowed or slathered. Vera may not be the only nurse in the family either; preclinical studies have found promising evidence of superior wound healing using aborescens.
The best reason to grow aloes in the garden though is for a different kind of remedy – flower deprivation. Most aloe species flower in winter, providing much-needed food for bees, butterflies and birds, and a hot shot of invigorating colour for us. South African nurseryman Leo Thamm has bred a host of new cultivars, with flower colours ranging from creamy whites to firebrand scarlet, and in all sizes from low-growing edging material to grand feature plants. Through careful selection and breeding over 35 years Thamm has developed about 150 colourful, floriferous and easy-to-grow aloes. In Australia these Sunbird Aloes are grown and sold by Aloe-Aloe. Here’s a bunch of them, shot at the Collectors’ Plant Fair earlier this year.
Gorgeous aren’t they, and aloes are trouble-free garden plants. They withstand dry conditions and wilful neglect, which is pretty much what my down-the-road neighbour offers. In fact, Aloe arborescens is so tough it was used to fence stock enclosures in southern Africa, and can still be seen marking the boundaries, the animals long-gone. While they are terrifically hardy, aloes respond enthusiastically to generous hospitality. Grow them in the garden or in containers, ensuring that the container chosen fits the ultimate size of the plant. For best results, choose a position in full sun, and in summer feed with manure and water during dry spells.