August 21, 2018

Getting To Know Winter-Loving Aloes

It is during the cold winter months when we seek colors in our garden. We want that pop of color to remind us that spring and summer will come soon and everything will be bright and cheery again. If you love succulents, aloes are a great choice. While all the other plants are taking a rest and going dormant, the aloes will bloom with their spires of flowers in fiery colors.

Though not all aloes flower during the winter, many of them do. These range from tall plants with trunks such as the Aloe barberae (Aloe bainesii) or Aloe ferox, to stemless rosettes such as Aloe vanbalenii or Aloe microstigma and finally, to dwarf plants such as Aloe humilis.

These winter-blooming aloes come from South Africa, which lies in the southern hemisphere and has its winter season at the opposite time of the year. This means that while the States is suffering from the harsh winter cold from December to March, South African flowers are blooming. Regardless of which hemisphere the plants are in, they flower in response to the changing day length so the plant flowering in January in our gardens would be flowering in July back in South Africa.

Why do so many species bloom in the winter? We believe that part of the reason lies with their primary pollinators, the nectar-loving sunbirds. During the summer season, there is a lot of competition for the birds’ attention and they would not prefer aloes over the other flower-bearing plants. By flowering in the winter, when the competition is gone, the aloes are assured that they would get noticed by the sunbirds. This is crucial because the sunbirds need fuel to make it through the winter. On top of that, the aloes will get pollinated.

In the US, we don’t have sunbirds but we do have hummingbirds and the nectar-producing flowers also appeal to them. If your garden is full of aloes, rest assured that you will attract as many hummingbirds as your garden can accommodate during winter.

All aloes are native to Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and islands in the Indian Ocean (principally Madagascar), and it is not a coincidence that many of the species in cultivation are specifically South African. Because South Africa is farthest from the equator, the seasons are more pronounced like in North America—this means shorter days and cold spells in the winter months.

An aloe that grew in the tropics could turn to mush when the temperature drops to a freezing point. On the other hand, many of the South African varieties will survive during the coldest of months. There are limits to this to how much cold they can take, of course. Very few aloes (even those from South Africa) can tolerate the temperature if it dropped below 25 degrees Fahrenheit but many can take as low as 29 degrees.

If you leave near a coast, you have a better chance of growing more varieties of the aloe because the winter temperature is less extreme than when you go farther inland.

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