Lover’s Day Aloe Tour at Ruth Bancroft Garden

In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, last Saturday, February 8, 2014, was Lover’s Day at the Ruth Bancroft Garden (RBG) in Walnut Creek. Under the motto “Aloes Are for Lovers – Bring Your Valentine to the Garden” RBG offered three guided tours showcasing the aloes in the garden, many of which were in bloom.

Saturday also marked the peak of the Pineapple Express storms that were sweeping across Northern California last week, bringing much needed rain. Judging from the way the rain was coming down while I was on the freeway, I feared the worst, but when I got to Walnut Creek the rain had stopped. Perfect timing for the 10 a.m. member’s only tour with RBG curator Brian Kemble! Brian is a leading aloe expert and has been creating hybrids for 30 years.


Covered bed of coral aloe (Aloe striata)


Covered bed of Aloe striata

Brian began his tour with a general introduction to aloes. Aloes are Old World plants, native exclusively to Southern Africa, tropical Africa, islands off the African coast (especially Madagascar) and the Arabian Peninsula. Some habitats are winter rainfall areas, others receive most of their precipitation in the summer. The majority of aloe species bloom in the winter, even those endemic to summer rainfall areas.

Aloes don’t have a built-in GPS so they don’t know if they’re in the southern or northern hemisphere. In other words, aloes that bloom in the winter in South Africa will bloom in the winter in California (even though it’s summer in South Africa then). This seems obvious but it’s a fairly common point of confusion.

As a genus, aloes aren’t very cold hardy. Most tolerate temperatures in the high to mid 20s, some even in the low 20s, but very few take significant amounts of frost. According to this handy chart compiled by Brian Kemble, the toughest species is Aloe striatula which can take temperatures as low as 18°F.

As we walked around the garden, the amount of damage caused by the cold snap in early December became obvious. While I didn’t see wide-spread decimation as with some aeoniums, quite a few aloes had burned leaves or leaf tips. In most cases the damage is cosmetic, but it’s still a sad sight to see.

Now let’s take a closer look at the many aloes growing at the RBG.


Aloe striata


Aloe striata × buhrii hybrid made by Brian Kemble


Aloe distans

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Aloe ‘Caesia’ (on the left with Aloe ‘Hercules)

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Aloe ‘Hercules’ (on the right with Aloe arborescens), a hybrid between Aloe barberae and Aloe dichotoma that is hardier than either of its parents


Aloe arborescens


Aloe capitata var. quartziticola


Aloe capitata var. quartziticola


Aloe maculata

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Aloe wickensii (on the left with Brian Kemble)


Aloe speciosa


Aloe ‘Hellskloof Bells’, a hybrid between Aloe distans and Aloe pearsonii, created by Brian Kemble in 1991. Check out the stunning flowers here.


Sad-looking aloes after the December cold spell


Aloe mudenensis


Aloe mudenensis


Wider view of this bed


Aloe brevifolia


Aloe ferox × arborescens hybrid

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Aloe marlothii


Aloe lineata growing under Arctostaphylos 'Ruth Bancroft'


Unknown aloe—clearly a frost-sensitive species


Aloe burgersfortensis—the name is a bit of a tongue twister, but it simply means that it’s endemic to the town of Burgersfort in South Africa


Aloe glauca


Aloe glauca


Aloe succotrina with freeze-damaged purple leaf tips. Contrary to what its name suggest, this aloe doesn’t come from the island of Socotra but from South Africa. It was the first South African aloe to be introduced to Europe (it flowered in Holland in 1689). Read this article for more information.


Aloe shelter

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Aloe striata × maculata and Euphorbia myrsinites

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Aloe striata × maculata and Aloe maculata (front right)


Aloe striata × maculata


Another aloe shelter


White-flowering form of Aloe ferox, very rare and sought after


Assorted aloes and gasterias


Another Brian Kemble hybrid: Aloe humilis hybrid × glauca × spectabilis


Propagation greenhouse

Fortunately the rain held off for the duration of the tour. However, as I was talking to Brian Kemble and some other people afterwards, I got fairly wet. Luckily my camera was safe in a large Ziploc bag.

I also had the pleasure of meeting a follower of my blog who had driven down from Sacramento. I’m terrible at remembering names unless people wear tags, and I’m embarrassed to say I forgot your name. Was is Christine or Catherine? I feel awful because I wanted to give you a shout-out :-(.


  1. I can't wait to see this beautiful place. Looks like you had a great time in between the weather. I wonder if they are going to cut the dead tips off of some of the aloes? I have a couple like that and I did. Just trying to make them look a bit better.

    1. Candy, less than two months until the spring plant sale. To get you in the mood, check out these photos by the Ruth Bancroft Garden staff: Lots in bloom in April!

      Cutting off dead leaf tips did come up in relation to agaves but it should be the same for aloes. There's nothing wrong with it. Brian said that they do it on specimen plants but it would take too long to do it to all the plants.

  2. And I thought it was stressful to try and keep the plants in my garden looking good! I can't imagine being responsible for a collection such as this.

    Did you see any treasures in the propagation area?

    1. There must be a lot of pressure, seeing how people go to public gardens to see beautiful plants, not damaged ones.

      As for the propagation area, to be honest, I didn't spend much time in there. The aisles are narrow and it was crowded, both with people and plants. I'm sure it's full of treasures...

  3. You've renewed my interest on aloes, at least with tree aloes on top of those that seems hardy enough in our location. They are great group of plants with most having so much architectural merit. So lucky to be able to go to this special valentine tour!

    Also if you encounter an Aloe 'Hercules', a small one in one of your nursery visit please keep us in mind, it's been on our wishlist for a long time :)

    1. I love tree aloes, too. Very few will grow even in our climate though.

      'Hercules' is on my watch list. I'll put my feelers out to see what I can find. I'll pick one up for you, too.

  4. What a great tour. Some really nice aloes there, such a shame more ae not cold hardy.

    1. I agree. Aloes would be even more popular if they could be grown outside in zones 8 and below.


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