The Exquisite, Elusive Spiral Aloe

– Posted in: Garden Adventures

Alan Beverly was fresh out of college and a Peace Corps volunteer when he discovered a plant that became a lifelong passion.

Hiking the rugged mountains of Lesotho in central Africa, guided by “friendly, hardy Basotho people” (whose children shrieked with fear when they saw him, their first white man), he “found Aloe polyphylla perched on nearly vertical north-facing basalt far out of reach…emeralds set in nature’s mosaic.” That was in the 1970s. Since then, due to grazing herds and the near-extinction of the plant’s natural pollinator, the equally exquisite malachite sunbird, spiral aloes might not exist today—certainly not in cultivation—if Beverly had not brought home seed.

Spiral aloes seduce anyone who sees them. They’re challenging to grow in my part of the country (Southern CA), because they don’t like our hot summers. But elsewhere, in colder climates, it does fine—providing you understand its cultivation requirements.

Aloe polyphylla needs extremely well-drained soil and does best planted on a slope, the steeper the better. Here, it’s growing in the ground at , on the coast south of San Francisco. In habitat, its roots are continually bathed by ice water and it’s often snow-covered. Unlike other aloes, it goes down to 10 degrees.

Some spiral aloes swirl clockwise…

…others, counterclockwise. Collectors covet one of each.

Alan Beverly is now a professional landscape designer in Santa Cruz, CA, who cultivates and sells spiral aloes. This photo is from , which offers extensive information about the plants. When he emailed me his permission to use the photo, he added, “It would be good to mention that this is a rare event to see a flowering plant, and hobbyists should not count on this feature becoming manifest for them.” It’s worth noting, too, that seed-grown plants—like those he offers—demonstrate better form and are potentially more disease resistant than those from tissue culture. The latter have a less tight spiral and more upright leaves. Succulent Gardens is trialing both.

And here’s a new spin on the concept of (the title of my first book): I designed a spiral aloe mug and stamp for , my online shop.

My goal is to share the beauty of waterwise, easy-care succulents in gardens, containers and landscapes via , , , , , , and social media ( and ). My books: , and .   

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Debra Lee Baldwin

Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
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