Agaves and Aloes

It’s hard to resist adding new succulents to the dry slopes on the west side of the island. With so many new plant introductions from nurseries, it’s hard to stick to plants that are in keeping with the correct time period that we try to convey in the Prisoner Gardens – the 1940s and 1950s.

With help from Brian Kemble of the Ruth Bancroft Garden, we are adding five new species of Aloes and Agaves this year. Brian recommended this selection based not only on our historical time period, when these plants would have been available to gardeners back then, but also on our climatic conditions.

These new plants will have to cope with dry summers, wet winters, wind, and poor sandy soils. Welcome to Alcatraz! Unlike new inmates, these plants are accustomed to these conditions and should feel right at home.

Aloe glauca. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Aloe glauca. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Our first aloe is the blue aloe, Aloe glauca. The work ‘glauca’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘bluish-gray’ referring to the color of the large thick leaves and to the powdery bloom on their surfaces. It is an essentially stem-less aloe with rosettes of up to 18″ in diameter. Each rosette can produce up to three cone-shaped inflorescences of pink to pale orange flowers. The leaf surfaces are smooth and the margins are armed with reddish-brown teeth. Blue aloe is restricted to the drier rocky hills and mountain slopes of the Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces of South Africa, blooming August to October. It readily propagates by pupping. This aloe even prefers dry winters, but I’m sure on our well-draining slopes, the winter rains will not be a problem.

Our second aloe is Aloe plicatilis,

Aloe plicatilis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Aloe plicatilis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

or commonly known as fan aloe. This succulent has a fan-like arrangement of its leaves and will grow into a large multi-stemmed shrub. This species is endemic to a few mountains in the Western Cape in South Africa; and is only one of five species of tree aloes. Again, this aloe prefers well drained, sandy soil that is slightly acidic.

Our last aloe is the Spiny Aloe, Aloe africana and is from the Eastern Cape of South Africa. In its native habitat, this plant is commonly found growing on hills and flat areas with other aloes. This aloe is able to adapt to a wider range of climatic conditions, and can even grow in hot and humid areas during the summer time in Africa. The Spiny Aloe is another small tree that can grow up to 6 feet in height. The leaves are considered graceful with their 2 foot long arch and sharp red teeth along the margins.

Aloe africana. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Aloe africana. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

This aloe would have been available to gardeners back during the 1940s as it was first described in 1768 by the Scottish botanist Philip Miller, who was also the chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden. It was grown in Europe prior to when many other aloes were described and before Linnaeus establishing the binominal classification system we currently use. The specific epithet that Miller gave it is simply in reference its African origins

Brian also recommended two species

Agave colorata. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Agave colorata. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

of Agaves. The first one, Agave colorata is native to the coastal region of northwestern Sonora, Mexico. The blue-gray textured leaves are undulating and have teeth along the margins with a white pattern along the face of the leaf. The leaves will form a rosette and is fairly slow growing. This plant would have been perfect for inmate gardeners serving a long sentence – it takes the plant 15 years to bloom.

 

Agave victoriae-reginae. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Agave victoriae-reginae. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The last plant to join our ranks is Agave victoriae-reginae, also called Queen Victoria agave or royal agave. This is a very striking succulent with its white streaks on very geometrical leaves. The rosette is very compact, only reaching 3 feet high when fully grown. The plant takes a good 20 to 30 years to flower, so patience is a virtue; but the leaves of this plant are really why you would grow this plant.

When new plants are introduced to the gardens, our plant inventory list is updated. The plants are listed alphabetically in an Excel spreadsheet and notes are made on where the plant was purchased from, the price, the size of the pot, where the plant was planted on Alcatraz and a column for any special notes (mostly why the plant died or why it is being planted). The list is pretty basic but it serves our purpose – to leave a record for future gardeners.

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