On a recent trip to Santa Barbara, I was surprised to learn how easy it is to grow Aloe barbarae, perhaps the best-known tree aloe. The how-to info here and in my new video are from renowned horticulturist Jeff Chemnick of Aloes in Wonderland, a must-see destination for succulent lovers.
Why You Should Grow Tree Aloes
If you have room in your garden and your climate is mild with a maritime influence, consider adding a tree aloe or two. Aloe barberae (aka Aloe bainesii, Aloidendron barberae), Africa's largest aloe, is sculptural, intriguing and dramatic. It's also a great source of the partial shade so desirable for soft-leaved succulents.
Nurseries may sell rooted, boxed specimens for thousands of dollars, but like most succulents, Aloe barbarae starts readily from cuttings---even large ones several feet long and branched.
DLB in wonderland
At Aloes in Wonderland I descended into a forest of mature Aloe barbarae. It was a surreal experience: South Africa in Southern CA. Not quite Alice-in-Wonderland, but certainly a wonderland of aloes.
After the Fire
Jeff explained that when a wildfire destroyed his previous home in 2008, it also damaged a large Aloe barberae. When he removed the tree to make way for new construction, he salvaged its intact limbs. "I dug holes and stuck them in the ground," he recalls. "Like post holes, as if you were building a fence."
Jeff admits it was an experiment. He had no idea what would happen. "The rains came, and the cuttings rooted and started to grow," he says. He discovered that under optimal conditions, in-ground tree aloes grow up to two feet per year!
Here's what Jeff advises for Aloe barberae and similar Aloe 'Hercules' (a thicker-leaved x Aloe dichotoma hybrid):
Provide plenty of sun, ideally on a slope that's not north-facing (too shady).
Give lots of room. Trunks and bases get massive over time, so don't plant close to buildings, pipes or pools. Avoid crowding a young specimen with more vigorous shrubs that might smother it.
Plant in fast-draining, loamy, sandy soil. The ideal pH is neutral or slightly acidic. These aloe trees like compost, too.
Don't irrigate during cold, wet months. For optimal growth and flowering, water sparingly (once a month) up to weekly during hot, dry spells.
Cover when frost is predicted, especially when trees are young.
In summer, apply a cactus-and-succulent fertilizer high in nitrogen, ideally with trace elements and micronutrients. "I use Peter’s, Scotts or equivalent, 21-7-7 in a 25 lb. bag, water soluble, for use with an injector," Jeff says.
Aloe barbarae propagation
Limbs with branches and leaf clusters ("truncheons") nearly always root, and having a small tree from the get-go is well worth a try.
Although some people prefer to let cuttings or truncheons dry several weeks, then root them in coarse sand (such as decomposed granite), Jeff plants them immediately. "They might take a few months to root and the leaves will fade somewhat," he says, "but once the leaves turn green again, you’re off to the races!"
Visiting Aloes in Wonderland
Jeff's home nursery is a landscaped, 4.5-acre botanic garden in which every plant is for sale. Yes, earth-moving equipment is sometimes needed. And yes, he'll whack off a tree aloe limb for you.
In addition to aloes, Jeff specializes in cacti, euphorbias, agaves and other large succulents; bromeliads (notably dyckias and hechtias), and cycads (which resemble stiff-leaved, upright palms). He also leads plant-habitat expeditions to Mexico and beyond.
So, what did I bring home?
Above is my new vining Cyphostemma quinatum and---to make the Mad Hatter green with envy---an Aloes in Wonderland T-shirt. Hey Jeff, maybe do a ball cap?
Related Info on this site
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