Aloe ferox and other Dazzling Succulents

bitter aloe (Aloe ferox)

bitter aloe (Aloe ferox)

It may be the most visible flowering perennial of the winter season and, as a bonus, is one of the easiest to grow. Its species name means fierce, a testament to its spiny foliage, yet its long and fuzzy flowers are eminently approachable. I am talking about bitter aloe (Aloe ferox), so named on account of its bitter juice, whose healing powers are legendary among the indigenous South African tribes in whose ambience it grows. Bitter aloe is known to remedy a variety of ills, including every type of skin rash and stomach ailment, and it has been used in the treatment of diabetes as well.
The word aloe is derived from the Hebrew ohelim, or tents, and refers to aloe seeds, which are triangular or tent-shaped.
There are more kinds of aloes than any of us is likely to see in several lifetimes. They range from small-leafed ground covers to inspiring trees with every size of shrub in between. Bitter aloe will slowly grow into a single trunked tree, which you may consider less attractive than its younger, ground hugging form. Shrub and ground cover aloes appear as collections of whole plants, whether growing on top of one another or side by side. They hybridize freely so that there is a constant parade of of new species and subspecies as well. Propagation is easy. You can either detach and root offsets that form around the base of most species and, on branching or arborescent types, cut off the end of any branch and root it in fast-draining soil. In the Valley, aloes perform best in half-day sun. At maturity, they do not require water more than once or twice a week, if even that.
It seems that you either love variegated plants – whose leaves are green and white or green and gold — or could live just as well without them. I considered myself in the latter group until the emergence of several large, variegated and, in my opinion, stunning succulent selections in recent years.
Topping the list of these variegated beauties is Mautritius hemp (Furcraea foetida mediopicta’). This large-leafed succulent will remind you of variegated century plant (Agave americana ‘Mediopicta Alba’), a closely related species. There differ in several ways. Unlike century plant, Mauritius hemp is without spines, has a highly symmetrical growth habit and never looks dowdy, and performs better in half day than in full day Valley sun.
Foxtail agave has a softer leaf than any other agave. The gold and green variegated foxtail (Agave attenuata ‘Variegata’) takes this softness to another level since its golden aura gives it a warmth that makes it an outstanding candidate for entryways, whether planted in a pot or in the ground.
Soft-tipped agaves make fitting companions to Mauritius hemp and foxtail agave. Spanish dagger or Spanish bayonet are names commonly, if ironically, used for Yucca gloriosa, sometimes named Yucca recurvifolia, which probably has the softest foliage of any yucca species. ‘Bright Star’ is a brilliant variegated cultivar that grows no more than two feet tall, a modest stature that distinguishes it among most yuccas you will see.
At Armstrong Garden Center in Sherman Oaks, I recently encountered two variegated ground covers for no more than half the day’s sun, and they might actually grow best in even less sun than that. One is golden variegated sweet flag (Acrous gramineus ‘Ogon’), whose leaves emit a sweet scent upon being crushed, and the other is variegated dwarf periwinkle (Vinca minor ‘Illumination’).
Speaking of yuccas, when driving around Palmdale and Lancaster, and then along the Pearblossom Highway east towards Victorville, you will encounter many specimens of the more familiar Yucca brevifolia or Joshua tree. This tree was named by the Mormons who, upon first sighting Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert, immediately made a Biblical association with the species. When Joshua encountered the enemy at Ai (Joshua 8:1-29), he held his spear – commemorated in the sharp spines of the Joshua tree — aloft until all the inhabitants of Ai were killed.
Calliandras are leguminous species worthy of consideration for the winter garden since they are blooming now. Like all shrubs and trees of of the legume family, calliandras have pleasant pinnate foliage, produces pods, and manufacture their own nitrogenous fertilizer with the help of a symbiotic bacteria known as Rhizobium. Legumes, since they make their own fertilizer, are excellent selections for areas with desert soils of low fertility. You can select from several species, including pink powder puff (Calliandra haematocephala), a tropical species whose flowers are usually more red than pink, and Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), a more local species, whose flowers are smaller than those on its tropical cousin and whose leaves are an arresting beautiful blue-green.
Tip of the Week: Joshua trees, like oaks, are protected and may not be removed or transplanted from their habitat without a permit. To avoid sunburn, it is wise to situate your plant with the same orientation it had in the desert. Typically, the north side of the plant will be labeled. You should also plant it in fast-draining soil. To determine your soil’s suitability for raising Joshua trees, or desert plants in general, fill a prospective planting hole with water. If the water drains within 2-3 hours, you can plant with confidence that root rot will not be a problem. You can find Joshua trees in some nurseries, both transplanted and seed grown specimens. If you are patient, you can grow them from seed yourself. For the first two to three years, they will look like blades of grass. Once they start to develop into little trees, expect around six inches of growth per year.

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