John Miller's Oakland aloe garden (Institute for Aloe Studies)

In July I blogged about the plants I'd mail-ordered from the Institute for Aloe Studies (IAS) in Oakland. I was blown away (and still am) by their huge selection of uncommon aloe species and their very reasonable prices.

Some of the IAS plants are grown in a greenhouse on the grounds of the Oakland Zoo, others at the private garden of IAS president John Miller. A few weekends ago, I finally had the opportunity to visit John's garden together with three other aloe enthusiasts, John B, Justin T and Brian P. The experience was mind-blowing and overwhelming—actually, it was very similar to way I often feel a really great museum.

As it turns out, John Miller has one of the largest collections of aloes in the country. My partners-in-crime were giving him a good-natured ribbing: Where are you now in the top 3? Number 2? Haven't made it to the top yet? Plant nerds like teasing each other.

Aloidendron dichotomum dressed up for Christmas

To find out more about the history of the IAS, read my previous post and the About Us page on their website.

John has a ½ acre hillside lot offering jaw-dropping panoramic vistas of Oakland and San Francisco Bay. "A multi-million dollar view at half the price," he said with a big smile. It was a bit hazy when we were there, but I bet on a clear day you can see the San Francisco skyline. John really lucked out; I can't imagine properties with so much space come on the market very often!

While I wouldn't call myself an aloe expert—I'm more of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none—I have a reasonable familiarity with the genus. At least that's what I thought. However, it quickly became obvious how little I actually know: As John was leading us around and pointing out plants, there were quite a few species I had never even heard of. My wife often jokes that it seems like I'm making up plant names on the spot (I don't), and now I knew how she feels.

There are at least 450 recognized aloe species, probably more, seeing how taxonomy likes nothing better than change. In addition, there are countless named cultivars and hybrids, possibly numbering in the thousands. Although John is only interested in species (not hybrids), that's still a lot of taxa. Some species names are reasonably straightforward—africana, elegans, eminensferox, just to name a few—but others are veritable tongue-twisters that my overburdened brain will probably never be able to commit to memory: analavelonensis, capmanambatoensis, hlangapies, ifanadianae, knersvlakensis, kouebokkeveldensis, umfoloziensis. I'm not even sure Brian has any of these, but many of the names he rattled off seemed equally esoteric to me. Give me good old Aloe zubb any day—one-syllable names are good!

On that note, let's wander around, starting with the plantings next to the house. As you can see, very little space is unused. And there are very few plants that aren't aloes.

In the captions below, I specify where each aloe species is from. If there's no geographical notation, it's from South Africa.

The tall flowering aloe is Aloe pluridens

Aloe schoelleri (Eritrea) and Aloe decurva (Mozambique), neither of them a household name although very attractive

Aloe powysiorum (Kenya). Never heard of it? You're not alone.

LEFT: Aloe broomii var. tarkaensis  RIGHT: Aloe yemenica (Yemen). This combo shows how different aloes can look.

Aloe broomii var. tarkaensis. I have an Aloe broomii in the bed along the street, and it constantly gets mistaken for an agave.

Aloe arenicola

John's potting station. Most, if not all, of the IAS's plants are grown in pure pumice. This goes a long way towards preventing rot in sensitive species but it does necessitate regular feeding.

Variegated Aloe powysiorum (Kenya), possibly the only one in the country. This plant had just been sold and was waiting to be picked up.

Mound between the garage and the house

The aloe selection in this bed is a small taste of what's waiting in the garden below

Kumara plicatilis, with Aloidendron eminens (Somalia) in the background

The flowering aloe in the back is Aloe rivierei (Yemen), the aloe with long drooping leaves in the front is Aloe sabaea, now Aloidendron sabaeum (Saudi Arabia, Yemen)

This mound is also home to a bunch of companion plants, including echeverias, dudleyas and ferocactus

Dudleya and echeverias

Aloe erinaceae (Namibia)

Aloe karasbergensis, a close relative of the coral aloe (Aloe striata)

Aloe karasbergensis

Starsky, the guardian of the aloes

Aloe rivierei (Yemen)

First look at the lower part of the garden

Aloe arborescens next to the stairs leading down into the two levels of the lower garden

TOP: Aloe pluridens  MIDDLE: Aloidendron ramosissimum   BOTTOM: Aloe mawii (Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique)

TOP: Aloidendron ramosissimum   BOTTOM: Aloe mawii. The building on the left is the garage.

Aloe angelica, sporting flowers that have to be among the prettiest in the genus

The main part of the aloe garden is on the left. The area on the right is reserved for vegetables.

The garden continues behind the greenhouse

There's also a large deck. Heck, the deck is the size of many of the backyards I see in new subdivisions.

Looking towards the house

Aloidendron dichotomum

Aloidendron dichotomum and Aloe pluridens

Aloidendron dichotomum

Aloidendron dichotomum

Aloe glauca (form from Bonnievale, RSA)

Aloidendron sabaeum, although most people still refer to it as Aloe sabaea

Aloidendron sabaeum is native to Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia

Aloe dhufarensis, another species from the Arabian Peninsula, and Echeveria cante

Aloe lukeana (Uganda)

Aloe lukeana (Uganda)

Aloe ankoberensis (Ethiopia)

Aloe debrana (Ethiopia)

Aloe elgonica (Kenya)

Aloe ferox

Look closely, there's an Encephalartos or two in there!

Yellow-flowering Aloe arborescens

LEFT: Aloe jungle along the fence    RIGHT: Aloe ferox

Aloe erinaceae (Namibia)

Aloe africana

Aloe speciosa

Aloe munchii (Zimbabwe). I have a small offset and can't wait for it to look like this someday!

Aloe munchii (Zimbabwe)

Aloe mutabilis

Aloe mutabilis

Yellow-flowering Aloe arborescens

Aloe vaombe (Madagascar)

Aloe vaombe (Madagascar)

Variegated Aloe vaombe (Madagascar)

Variegated Aloe vaombe (Madagascar)

Aloe helenae (Madagascar)

Aloe helenae (Madagascar)

Aloe helenae (Madagascar)

Aloe pulcherrima (Ethiopia)

The greenhouse is a thing of beauty

It's larger than some apartments in, say, New York City

And it's packed with aloes, many of them rare in cultivation

If I'd asked John for an ID of every plant, we'd probably still be there today

Aloe pirottae (Ethiopia). Typically it has red flowers, but John also has a yellow bloomer.

Aloe pirottae (Ethiopia)

Aloe pirottae (Ethiopia)

Aloe pirottae (Ethiopia)

Aloe vaotsanda (Madagascar), another impressive single-stemmed aloe. Unfortunately, it's quite frost-sensitive.

Justin T, looking overwhelmed in a sea of aloes

Various Aloe capitata varieties (Madagascar)

Aloe ericetorum (Madagascar), sporting a very pretty capitate flower similar to the Aloe capitata complex

I've used the word "overwhelmed" several times now, but looking at the photos above, I'm sure you understand what I mean. All four of us were overwhelmed, but in the best possible way.

Imagine there's a truly yummy cake in front of you. You have one piece, then another, and maybe a third because it's just so damn good. But all of a sudden your stomach tells you it can't handle another bite, not even a nibble. And yet, after an hour of rest, maybe in a hammock under a shady tree, there's room again in your tummy and you're ready for another serving. That's how it was. Except the additional serving has to wait until my next visit.

© Gerhard Bock, 2018. No part of the materials available through may be copied, photocopied, reproduced, translated or reduced to any electronic medium or machine-readable form, in whole or in part, without prior written consent of Gerhard Bock. Any other reproduction in any form without the permission of Gerhard Bock is prohibited. All materials contained on this site are protected by  United States and international copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Gerhard Bock. If you are reading this post on a website other than, please be advised that that site is using my content without my permission. Any unauthorized use will be reported.


  1. I was hoping you would visit (and post about) the IAS someday... here it is Christmas morning - a great way to start the day. I ordered several plants after your post in July and was wondering what John's garden must look like. Fascinating to see the mature forms of the same Aloes I have potted in 1 gal containers. Now I just need to find some plant super food to speed up their growth! thanks.

  2. Yes, the breadth of the collection is daunting so I can imagine how you felt seeing it in person. I made a few notes of species with particular appeal to me and checked them against those available on the IAS site - it's perhaps a good thing that none are currently available but I've bookmarked the site for future reference. After all, I do still have some space on my back slope.

    Merry Christmas, Gerhard!

  3. Wow! If only Aloes liked my climate. I do adore Aloe broomii var. tarkaensis and have meant to add an
    Aloe erinaceae to my potted collection.

  4. Does it ever freeze there? I live in Phoenix and between the hot summer sun and nights and the frost as we expect tonight, many Aloes are difficult here. I have some beautiful budded ones but I am so afraid the next 3 nights of frost will do the buds in! What a wonderful Aloe garden there in CA!

  5. Whoa... That is amazing! No way could I grow most of those in the desert, but gosh, in the right climate, they are beautiful!

    1. I see you are in the Mojave Desert, Renee. I am in the Sonoran Desert. Does it freeze where you are? I do have some of these Aloes here. The buds are covered right now because it has frozen 3 nights and more to come.

  6. What a beautiful set of images and great commentary. Thanks for sharing this Gerhard. Now we just have to get you down to Santa Barbara

  7. Oh, my! So many I've never even heard of. Would love to pick the owner's brain on Aloe care.


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