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A Succulent for Summer

Say hello to the aloe plant, whose many varieties look good year-round and can also take the heat of Orange County.


In the intense heat of summer, when many garden plants are suffering, aloes stand up to the strain. Native to similar climates such as Africa, they like our hot summers. And there's a lot of them to choose from.

No doubt you've heard of Aloe vera, but did you know that there are 430 different species of aloes? You'll find everything from miniature aloes that are just inches high to shrubs and large trees, said Thomas Cole, co-owner of Cold Spring Aloes in Santa Barbara, which grows about 150 species of them.

"Aloes are not only perfect if you're looking for a specimen plant to provide the framework for your succulent garden, they are also an interesting addition to any type of garden," Cole said.

There are a lot of good things to say about aloes, agreed Steve Gerischer, a plantsman at Hortus, a nursery in Pasadena. "Aloes not only have fantastic architectural forms, they are drought-tolerant, take full sun, are super easy to care for and tend to bloom from late fall into early spring, when many other parts of the garden aren't blooming."

There are some summer bloomers.

If those attributes aren't enough, aloes also attract hummingbirds and they're long-lived, forgiving plants that do well in containers, says Richard Hipp, manager of House of Cactus in Stanton.

Although aloes are admired for their long-lasting, showy flower spikes--which range in color from yellow, orange, red and white--their foliage is equally striking. Many of the leaves tend to be serrated and not all are green. Some have spotting and others are tinged with orange, purple or red.

Historically, aloes have also been used medicinally.

"Although all aloes are medicinal, aloe vera tends to be the species that is farmed and used commercially," said Lorraine Thomas, owner of K & L Cactus & Succulent Nursery, an Ione, Calif., company that does mail-order and carries a variety of aloes.

No matter which aloe you choose, they all require similar care. Keep the following tips in mind.

* Plant in full sun or bright shade. Aloes need bright light to flower well, although some of the smaller ones do better with some protection in hot inland areas.

* Provide good drainage. "The most common cause of aloe failure is overwatering," Cole said.

Provide pot and ground-grown plants with good drainage by mixing in pumice. For pots, use one-third pumice and two-thirds potting soil. For the ground, mix in one-fourth to one-half pumice to existing soil. Heavy clay will need more pumice. Gypsum or gypsite is also a good addition.

Sandy soil may need some bulking with compost so that the drainage isn't overly fast.

* Water when dry. It's important to let aloes dry out between watering. They are drought-resistant.

* Feed sparingly. Aloes aren't heavy feeders and can actually be damaged by too much nitrogen. Experts suggest using an organic kelp-based product twice a year. If you use a stronger product, cut it to one-fourth strength.

* Repot root-bound plants. Aloes do well in containers, but will eventually outgrow their pots and begin to decline. When this happens, repot in a larger container. Before repotting, remove three-fourths of the root ball, let it heal for a couple of days outside in the shade and then repot. This will rejuvenate the plant.

It is best to do this from early spring through late summer so that the plant has a chance to reestablish itself before winter rains.

* Consider eventual size. With time, some aloes get very large and many spread by offsets. Plant in an area that will give them space to grow.

* Abbey Garden Nursery, Cacti and Succulents offers mail-order only. (562) 905-3520. No charge for catalog.

* Cold Spring Aloes is open by appointment only, (805) 455-3559.

* Hortus, 284 E. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 792-8255.

* House of Cactus is open every day but Monday, 10580 Beach Blvd., Stanton, (714) 828-4298.

* K & L Cactus & Succulent Nursery offers mail-order. (209) 274-0360; Catalogs cost $2.

* Orange County Farm Supply stocks pumice. (714) 978-6500.

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