Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Meet my book aloe (Aloe suprafoliata)

I won’t lie, agaves are my favorite group of plants, but aloes are right there near the top. They offer as much variety in size, texture and color as agaves do and many of them flower every year—unlike agaves, which typically flower only once, at the end of their lives (and then promptly die). I particularly like aloes that grow and flower in the winter when little else is in bloom.

The aloe I want to show you today is one of the more unusual ones. Native to northeastern South Africa and Swaziland, its botanical name is Aloe suprafoliata, which means “leaves stacked on top of each other.” The common name in Afrikaans is boekaalwyn, literally “book aloe.” It’s easy to see why: the stacked leaves resemble the pages of an open book.

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Two juvenile Aloe suprafoliata at the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory

I find this distichous leaf arrangement to be both fascinating and strangely beautiful.

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Annie’s Annuals, the cult nursery in Richmond, CA, refers to Aloe suprafoliata as the “mustache aloe,” which is both appropriate and humorous.

The interesting thing about Aloe suprafoliata is that has two faces—or rather, phases. As a youngster, its leaves are arranged in the open-book fashion you saw above. But as it enters adulthood, the leaf arrangement begins to change:

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Maturing Aloe suprafoliata at the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory

The leaves begin to swivel out and form a classic aloe rosette:

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Aloe suprafoliata in the ground on the UC Davis campus

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Flowering Aloe suprafoliata on the UC Davis campus

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Flowering Aloe suprafoliata at the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley

Some people lose interest in Aloe suprafoliata at this point because it becomes “conventional,” but I still think it looks good. And the flowers are truly beautiful.

My Aloe suprafoliata came from the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory. It was tiny when I bought it—in a 3-inch pot if I remember correctly—and it has certainly grown:

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As you can see it’s still in the open-book phase, but one thing is unusual about it: it has lots of pups. Aloe suprafoliata is generally solitary although some clones are known to offset freely. Mine is clearly one of them. More to give away later!

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My book aloe is in a pot on the flagstone walkway to the front door and gets a good 6 hours of sun a day. I hand-water it once a week. It’s a nice turquoise but doesn’t have the purple tinge the specimens at the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory had, but I think they get even less water.

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Aloe suprafoliata is hardy to around 25°F, possibly lower if kept dry. That makes it a zone 9b plant.

After we remove the front lawn this fall and replace it with a winter vegetable garden and a succulent mound, I will put my young adult Aloe suprafoliata and its babies (scandalous teenage pregnancy!) in the ground. I’d be happy to detach a few pups at that time if anybody is interested!

20 comments:

  1. Quite interesting and the flowers are beautiful! The pups are quite eye catching!

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  2. I'm under the impression that some of the more exotic and rare aloes are also difficult to maintain. It sounds like this one was fairly trouble free. What's been the most difficult aloe?

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    1. I don't know if there's a direct correlation between rarity and difficulty of cultivation. As you talk to others, you realize that some plants they have problems with are super easy in your own garden, and vice versa.

      As for aloes, the one that has given me more head- and heartache than any other is the spiral aloe, Aloe polyphylla. It's easily one of the most beautiful aloes and hence people try to grow it where they shouldn't--like the hot interior valleys of California. Aloe polyphylla loves cool coastal weather, preferably with fog, and hates our hot summers. I've killed three over the years and have given up.

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  3. I'm liking the look of yours with many pups! Love them, both juvenile and adult spiralling forms :)

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    1. I read somewhere last night that while most A. suprafoliata in the wild are solitary, the situation is reversed in cultivation as people share pups from freely offsetting clones.

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  4. Strange and wonderful indeed! I agree with Annie -- "mustache" is a more entertaining name. :)

    So very blue too!

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    1. I like mustache aloe too. Maybe I should "wear" one to the next big succulent event I go to!

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  5. I've been looking for this for a while and would love to be home to one of the pups when your teenage mother gives birth! And thanks for teaching me a new word (distichous), too.

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    1. Hey, Katie! I didn't recognize you. Will put your name on a couple of pups.

      I'm thinking of putting together a glossary of botanical terms relating to succulents. I need the practice!

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  6. Your "book/mustache" Aloe is fabulous! Great color and I quite like the little "tuffs" of baby plants at the base. And yes if you have a spare pup after you plant it I would love one!

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    1. Tufts, that's a great word for it!

      I'll save a few pups for you. I think there's a good dozen.

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  7. This is a stunning aloe. The young form sure is nice looking. How old until it starts to spiral, I wonder? If there are any left to be adopted, I would love to give one a new home.

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    1. That's a good question. I don't know how long they take to mature. I'll post an update as soon as mine starts to form a rosette.

      Got you down for a pup.

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  8. I've never seen this aloe. It's wonderful!

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    1. It's not all that common. I can't remember where I first saw it, but I was glad to find one at a UC Davis Arboretum plant sale.

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  9. Mine has been completely solitary and still is. A great surprise seeing all the offsets yours has! Mine is from Arid Lands. I think I like it solitary better...

    I nearly killed mine keeping it in a pot too long unwatered but it has recovered in the ground and is just starting to spiral. It is a very good Aloe, spiraled or not.

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    1. I remember seeing yours on your blog. What a beauty!

      I also like it better solitary. That's why I will remove the pups when I put it in the ground. I'm hoping it only offsets while it's young.

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  10. Bought an Aloe suprafoliata this week at TLD. When I googled it your blog can up first. Learned a new word too.....distichous. Thanks for the info. I'll post a picture on Instagram
    Bernie

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