Aloes range from the tall-as-a-tree ALOE barberae (formerly A. bainesii), with its rounded crown, curved terminal leaves and masses of pink flowers loved by birds, and A. dichotoma, the ‘Quiver tree’ or Kokerboom, down to the tiny A. aristata and others, and some have a rambling habit. At all times, they make a statement, and when they are in flower, they are assertive indeed. Members of the Liliaceae family, they are far removed, in many ways, from those elegant and graceful liliums.
Through the centuries, long before the gel of ALOE arborescens was used to alleviate the radiation burns suffered by the survivors of the Hiroshima bombing, aloes have been valued as medicinal plants. The ash of aloe leaves is used as an insecticide, and the leaves are also burnt to dry clay pots. A. arborescens is of great use in rural areas for planting as a closely growing hedge.
Being able to withstand dry conditions, aloes are valued for planting in rock gardens, dry sandy banks and places that are seldom watered, but if they are planted in very well drained soil, they can be mixed with other plants. It is important to give thought as to where your aloe originated, whether from mountain tops, beach sand or misty grasslands, and try to copy these conditions as closely as possible. Aloes will not accept waterlogged soil, and water should not be applied over the plant because of the danger of the water settling in the centre and rotting.
Plant one tall aloe close to the house or patio and, for weeks in season, you can watch the birds come to feast on the nectar. In the garden, try ALOE striata, with its red–margined, finely–striped, well-shaped leaves, from which the branched flower stems arise.For an attractive security hedge, A. arborescens will fit the bill. Take stems from an established plant, dry them off for a day or two, then plant them quite close together and keep them damp, not waterlogged. Later, it may be necessary to thin them out.
Aloes are good hybridisers, and a famous aloe grower once stated that A. arborescens was the ‘sexiest’ aloe, willingly crossing with any other aloes, with striking results. Aloes can be grown from seed, taken on a hot dry day when the seed capsules are starting to split open. Keep the seedlings in a sheltered place, just damp and, after planting out, give them weekly doses of weak liquid manure.
Aloes are prone to scale but first let the ladybirds come to feast on them, then gently brush the dead scales off with a fine brush. Aphids and weevils may be removed by hand and fungal pests such as rust can be sprayed with a suitable fungicide. Other inhabitants could be spiders, who spread their webs between the leaves, shining beautifully on a dewy morning, and birds, which have been known to make their nests within the leaves. You may even find a lizard languidly taking in the sun in the curve of a leaf.
Highly ornamental, extremely useful and truly South African are our aloes. They need our protection as well as our admiration.
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