The story of Hercules

NOTE: This post has been updated with corrected information regarding the Bill Baker clone of ‘Hercules’.


Aloe ‘Hercules’ (technically Aloidendron ‘Hercules’) is arguably the most popular tree aloe for landscaping in California. It’s a hybrid between two massive species, Aloidendron barberae (previously bainesii) and Aloidendron dichotomum, whose natural habitats are a continent apart: A. barberae is native to the eastern side (Eastern Cape of South Africa north into Mozambique), where it rains primarily in the summer. A. dichotomum is native to the western side (Northern Cape of South Africa and Namibia), which receives what little rainfall there is in the winter.

Range map of the tree aloes of Southern Africa (by Abu Shawka - Own work, CC0,

Both parents can grow to impressive proportions in their natural habitats, A. barberae up to 60 ft. (less in cultivation) and A. dichotomum up to 30 ft., with A. barberae being a much faster grower than A. dichotomum. In cultivation, ‘Hercules’ seems to top out at 30 ft.

Aloidendron barberae at Pitzer College

Aloidendron dichotomum at Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, CA

As far as cold tolerance goes, A. barberae sustains damage below 28°F while A. dichotomum is said to be hardy to 25°F if kept on the dry side.

Aloidendron ‘Hercules’ at Ruth Bancroft Garden, Walnut Creek, CA

Thanks to hybrid vigor, ‘Hercules’ grows faster than either parent (even faster than A. barberae) and exhibits better cold tolerance, reportedly down to 20°F. This greatly extends the areas where ‘Hercules’ can be successfully grown. My friend Jan Emming, for example, has several ‘Hercules’ growing at his Destination: Forever Ranch in northwestern Arizona where winter temperatures can drop below 20°F (Jan does protect his ‘Hercules’ below 25°F to be safe).

‘Hercules’ flowers are orange, compared to rose-pink on A. barberae and yellow on A. dichotomum.

A. ‘Hercules’ in flower at the Ruth Bancroft Garden

Through tissue culture, ‘Hercules’ has become so common that it can even be found in big-box garden centers. It’s now more commonly seen in gardens than either of its parents.


The origins of ‘Hercules’ are not well documented. Jeff Moore, in his 2016 book Aloes & Agaves in Cultivation (out of print, but still available from Exotic Plant Books), summarized what is commonly known about it:

First appearing in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s or early 1980s, still rarely seen in the 90s, A. ‘Hercules’ is at last becoming a staple in many landscapes. . . . Owing to its confused hybrid vigor, it does suffer at times from an inability to handle its own growth habit, and large trees have been known to topple from their own weight. That is how I acquired my first A. ‘Hercules’ in the late 90s. Bill Baker, a renowned plant-man in Los Angeles, had one of the original ‘Hercules’, but it got so big so fast that he woke up one day to find it laying flat on the ground. So he decided to cut it up to make more plants, which some of us had been begging him to do for some time. He did, and now the plant is out there. Tissue culture has increased supply but has led to ‘funkiness’ in some batches.

When I was asking around while doing research for this post, Bill Baker’s name invariably came up. Most people I communicated with didn’t think Bill Baker was the actual creator of ‘Hercules’, but they knew very little otherwise. Then I hit pay dirt: Brent Wigand of (click here for my June 2023 post about visiting Brent’s garden and nursery) was able to shed light on the mystery surrounding ‘Hercules’.

Bill Baker (1959–2009) was well known among cactus, succulent and bromeliad fanciers. In his nursery in Reseda, California, he created many hybrids, especially dyckias, that are still widely grown today (think Dyckia ‘Brittle Star’ or D. ‘Tarzana’). Brent Wigand says that in the late 1990s there were some massive ‘Hercules’ in Bill’s yard; one growing under a tree canopy was 35 ft. tall. Bill was selling ‘Hercules’ cuttings in 15-gallon pots, propagated from a plant he called his “aloe mite ball.” It was only about 8 ft. tall and severely infested with aloe mites. The mites caused accelerated branching, leaving Bill with a steady supply of cuttings to sell. I wonder if the cuttings were mite-infested, too? The practice seems crazy now, but maybe back then people didn’t take mites as seriously as they do today.

Bill told Brent that he wasn’t the creator of ‘Hercules’; he had gotten his original plants from a “friend.” After some coaxing, Bill revealed that the friend was Jim Gardner, a doctor from the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Bill gave Brent Jim Gardner’s number, and Brent visited him on several occasions. Jim is a consummate plant lover, grower, and hybridizer as well as a gifted potter. He’s volunteered at South Coast Botanic Garden for many years. (Debra Lee Baldwin has many photos as well as a video of Jim’s spectacular garden on her website. Check it out, you’ll be blown away.)

Brent thinks that Jim Gardner created ‘Hercules’ in the 1980s, with A. barberae being the seed parent and A. dichotomum the pollen parent. All of Bill Baker’s ‘Hercules’ were from cuttings he’d received from Jim Gardner.

Bill Baker form

The Bill Baker form of ‘Hercules’, which began to make the rounds in the 1990s and early 2000s, is chunky and branches relatively low. If watered regularly, the leaves can get so heavy that branches will break off or the entire aloe falls over. That’s a problem especially with younger plants.

A. ‘Hercules’ at Aloes in Wonderland, Jeff Chemnick’s garden and rare plant nursery in Montecito, CA

A distinct feature of the Bill Baker clone are the “tiger stripes” on the trunk:

Distinct tiger stripes on the trunk of the Bill Baker form

In an email exchange, Pam Koide-Hyatt of Bird Rock Tropicals in Encinitas, CA shared her personal experience with ‘Hercules’:

I became friends with Bill in the early 1980’s and did some travels with him in Mexico. In the late 1990’s one of Bill’s Hercules fell over and I got a piece of it. I planted it and it grew quickly and branched heavily. In 2005, after we got 23 inches of rain in the winter, mine fell over. It laid on the ground for two years as it was too heavy to move.

Finally I had the branches cut off and I ended up with a dozen trunks that I planted in 5 gallon containers. After another few years, they were all planted in the ground. These are the trees in the images below. All of them originated from the single trunk I got from Bill.

A. ‘Hercules’ at Bird Rock Tropicals (photos © Pam Koide-Hyatt, used with permission)

A. ‘Hercules’ at Bird Rock Tropicals

A. ‘Hercules’ at Bird Rock Tropicals

Pam continues:

You can see that they all branch early and due to the way they spread they get heavy and branches fall off. I have not had a tree fall over again, but the original tree was growing on a hillside which might have encouraged the fall.

We harvest branches and pot them up for sale. You can see in the images that even in the containers they start to branch. We sell them for $75. The true Bill Baker clone has more value than the tissue-culture ones, which I see all over now and they rarely have branches. The TC ones are cheaper due to mass production, but they are the inferior clone.

A. ‘Hercules’ cuttings for sale at Bird Rock Tropicals

Seaside Gardens, a well-known nursery in Carpinteria, California, has a spectacular 3-acre demonstration garden subdivided into 11 “vignettes” created by local landscape designers. The Succulent Garden, designed by Mary Pat Moloney and Donna and Bill Baker, features several A. ‘Hercules’ donated by Bill Baker:

A. ‘Hercules’ at Seaside Gardens, Carpinteria, CA

A. ‘Hercules’ at Seaside Gardens, Carpinteria, CA

Tissue-culture form

Jim Gardner wasn’t the only one to cross A. barberae with A. dichotomum. Another form was created by Rancho Soledad Nursery in San Diego County. It’s skinnier than the Bill Baker form and doesn’t branch until it’s 8-12 feet tall. (Jeff Chemnick of Aloes in Wonderland referred to it as a giant lollipop when I talked to him recently.)

The Rancho Soledad form has been propagated by the thousands by Rancho Tissue Technologies, the tissue-culture lab on the grounds of Rancho Soledad Nursery, since as early as 2007.

Rancho Tissue form of A. ‘Hercules’ at Rancho Soledad Nursery, Rancho Santa Fe, CA

The same, or a very similar form, is produced by Altman Plants, the leading succulent grower in the U.S. In Southern California, it’s sold in big-box garden centers like Home Depot.

‘Hercules’ photographed at OASIS, Altman Plants’ retail outlet, by my friend Kyle on 12/28/23 (for reference, 9 cm is 3.5 inches)

When Kyle stopped at OASIS, they were also selling tissue-cultured variegated ‘Hercules’. $350 for a 5-gallon plant may be a good deal for such a rare plant, but way too rich for my blood.

Here are some more photos I’ve taken of Aloidendron ‘Hercules’ in private and public gardens in California and Arizona:

A. ‘Hercules’ at Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ (Bill Baker form)

A. ‘Hercules’ at Succulent Gardens, Castroville, CA (Bill Baker form)

A. ‘Hercules’ in Mark R’s garden in Oakland, CA (most likely the tissue-culture form)

A. ‘Hercules’ at Piece of Eden, Southern California (most likely the tissue-culture form)

A. ‘Hercules’ in Justin and Max’s garden in Oakland, CA  (most likely the tissue-culture form)

Now that it’s widely available thanks to tissue culture, ‘Hercules’ has become a big success. Deservedly so: It’s undemanding and easy to grow and makes a stunning specimen in a matter of years.

‘Hercules’ should be grown in lean soil and watered sparingly when young. As it’s maturing, it should be given even less supplemental water. As mentioned earlier, too much water and fertilizer lead to rapid, excessive growth, which can make the trunk too weak to hold up the heavy weight of the leaves. This, in turn, may cause the entire plant to fall over.

This propensity to topple over when given too much water is shared by other tree aloe hybrids named after mythological heroes: ‘Samson’ (Aloidendron barberae × A. ramosissimum), and especially ‘Goliath’ (Aloidendron barberae × Aloe vaombe). Too much of a good thing will cause them to become so heavy that they fall victim to gravity. This reminds me of what I’ve heard about Labrador retrievers: Given an unlimited supply of food, they simply don’t know when to stop and might literally eat themselves to death. Similarly, ‘Hercules’ and its half siblings will gorge themselves until they drop.

Aloe vs. Aloidendron

Historically, all aloes – big and small – were in the genus Aloe. In 2014, South African researchers reorganized the genus and created five new genera in addition to Aloe: Aloiampelos (rambling aloes like A. ciliaris), Aloidendron (the tree aloes), Aristaloe (a monotypic genus with only one species, the widely grown A. aristata), Gonialoe (the popular partridge breast aloe, G. variegata, and two other closely related species), and Kumara (the fan aloe, K. plicatilis, and one other close relative). All other aloe species remain in the genus Aloe. If you want to find out more, read Manning, J. C., Boatwright, J., Daru, B. H., Maurin, O., & Van Der Bank, M. (2014). A Molecular Phylogeny and Generic Classification of Asphodelaceae subfamily Alooideae: A Final Resolution of the Prickly Issue of Polyphyly in the Alooids? Systematic Botany, 39(1), 55–74. The article can be downloaded for free from ResearchGate. (Manning et al. also split the genus Haworthia into Haworthia, Haworthiopis, and Tulista.)

Informally, some people still call Aloidendron barberae by its old names, Aloe barberae and Aloe bainesii. Both refer to the persons who first collected it, albeit in different places in South Africa. In 1874, British botanist William Turner Thiselton-Dyer described both Aloe barberae and Aloe bainesii as different species in the same article in the The Gardner’s Chronicle (Gard. Chron. n.s., 1: 566 1874). A few months later, Dyer published a note in which he corrected himself, uniting the two species and choosing Aloe barberae as the official name. Ironically, this note was overlooked for over a hundred years until Smith & al. drew attention to it in a 1994 article in the journal Bothalia, thereby reinstating Aloe barberae as the valid name. As per the reorganization of the genus Aloe described above, Aloe barberae became Aloidendron barberae in 2014.

⸻ ✦ ⸻ ✦ ⸻

I love doing research, but there is a specific reason why I did this deep dive into ‘Hercules’. Check this post to find out more.

© Gerhard Bock, 2024. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. Hmmmmm, I can't help but wonder what this big reveal is! How exciting. I have a 'Hercules" that is growing like the "never stop eating golden retriever" I do worry it will topple. It is quite stout so fingers crossed it stands tall.

    1. If it's stout, it'll be fine, I think. It's the tall ones with a spindly trunk that tend to fall over.

      I wish the "grand reveal" were a variegated 'Hercules', but it isn't.

  2. I love reading all about Aloe 'Hercules' but, honestly, it depresses me! Anyone following me on Facebook knows what has happened to my beautiful 8 foot tall Hercules this horrid summer in Phoenix. I am so heartbroken. Between the possible cold and the for sure heat here I am giving up on it. I need to get over to the DBG and see how theirs are doing. As long as they didn't get any water during last summer's heat, I imagine they are okay.

    1. My heart goes out to you. Yours was beautiful - the form that I like. Let me know how the Hercules at the DBG are doing.

    2. Oh, so sorry to read this Nancy. I'm not on FB, so don't know the story. It must have hurt. Your summer was indeed a terrible one. Best wishes, hboo

  3. Really interesting story about Hercules origins. Many thanks. I would not think a variegated Hercules would be worth it--they quickly get tall enough to make their variegation hard to see. Tho of course it would be slower growing.

    Mine (the one that has flowered) has a pinkish, quite pale orange flower, and the flowers are quite big and stout, like the trunk. I like the variations in form, some more slender, some more stout. The triple-trunk Huntington specimen is particularly attractive.

    Looking forward to the rest of the story -- hboo

  4. So much great information! I think I definitely have the Bill Baker form of Herc, tall and skinny. So Cal Hort organized a visit/sale to the Bakers' garden and greenhouses after Bill's death, probably the most jaw-dropping sale I've been to and where I picked up my variegated ponytail palm among other treasures. Looking forward to part 2...

    1. Wow, that sounds like a fantastic sale! Did Bill Baker discover the variegated ponytail palm? They're very rare now.

  5. This is great information but not entirely accurate. The clone that was tissue cultured at Rancho was from Bill Baker. I know that because I brought the piece to the lab. The concept that the tissue culture clones are inferior is just not correct. When you take cuttings from mature plants they grow differently as you are essentially taking branches. A tissue culture plant grows and behaves more like a seedling. The branch cuttings can actually collapse easier as the lateral lean makes that more likely. Keep in mind the original plants were propagated because they fell over. I think portraying those as different and perhaps better is misleading when in fact the source is the same. The variegates are available for far less actually than stated at 100 dollars and they grow quite quickly but perhaps less so than the non variegated plants. I acknowledge that some TC plants have shown some drift and those are likely the mutations that Jeff referenced. It is susceptible to aloe mite regardless but that is treatable with small plants. Large plants too but much more work and difficulty.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this. First-hand knowledge like this is invaluable. I simply collected what information I could find, and your perspective rounds out the picture. I really appreciate you taking the time to reply.


Post a Comment