The Exquisite, Elusive Spiral Aloe

– Posted in: Garden Adventures

Alan Beverly was fresh out of college and a Peace Corps volunteer when he discovered a plant that became a lifelong passion.

Hiking the rugged mountains of Lesotho in central Africa, guided by “friendly, hardy Basotho people” (whose children shrieked with fear when they saw him, their first white man), he “found Aloe polyphylla perched on nearly vertical north-facing basalt far out of reach…emeralds set in nature’s mosaic.” That was in the 1970s. Since then, due to grazing herds and the near-extinction of the plant’s natural pollinator, the equally exquisite malachite sunbird, spiral aloes might not exist today—certainly not in cultivation—if Beverly had not brought home seed.

Spiral aloes seduce anyone who sees them. They’re challenging to grow in my part of the country (Southern CA), because they don’t like our hot summers. But elsewhere, in colder climates, it does fine—providing you understand its cultivation requirements.

Aloe polyphylla needs extremely well-drained soil and does best planted on a slope, the steeper the better. Here, it’s growing in the ground at Succulent Gardens Nursery, on the coast south of San Francisco. In habitat, its roots are continually bathed by ice water and it’s often snow-covered. Unlike other aloes, it goes down to 10 degrees.

Some spiral aloes swirl clockwise…

…others, counterclockwise. Collectors covet one of each.

Alan Beverly is now a professional landscape designer in Santa Cruz, CA, who cultivates and sells spiral aloes. This photo is from his website, which offers extensive information about the plants. When he emailed me his permission to use the photo, he added, “It would be good to mention that this is a rare event to see a flowering plant, and hobbyists should not count on this feature becoming manifest for them.” It’s worth noting, too, that seed-grown plants—like those he offers—demonstrate better form and are potentially more disease resistant than those from tissue culture. The latter have a less tight spiral and more upright leaves. Succulent Gardens is trialing both.

And here’s a new spin on the concept of Designing with Succulents (the title of my first book): I designed a spiral aloe mug and stamp for Succulent Chic, my online shop.

My goal is to share the beauty of waterwise, easy-care succulents in gardens, containers and landscapes via blog postsnewsletterspublic speaking and workshopsphotosvideosmerchandise, and social media (Facebook and Pinterest). My books: Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardensand Succulents Simplified.  www.debraleebaldwin.com 

Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored the Timber Press bestsellers Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified. Debra is a regular contributor to Sunset and other publications, and her own half-acre garden near San Diego has been featured in Better Homes & Gardens. Debra specializes in showing how to use architectural, waterwise and easy-care succulents in a wide variety of appealing and creative applications. www.debraleebaldwin.com.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin

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ann October 25, 2011, 4:59 am

Wow, these aloes are truly amazing in their cold hardiness. I do think North Dakota winters will probably be too much for them.

Yes, I’m afraid so! — Debra

Jack Holloway October 25, 2011, 5:40 am

as a South African looking for aloes to grow in my cold and damp climate, someone recently mentioned the spiral aloe (and its rareness) to me. I had not yet followed up. Now I covet… I shall immediately try to track down a local source of seeds and/or plants! Thanks for posting

Jack, please let us know how your search progresses, and whether you can indeed grow this most beautiful of succulents. — Debra

Pam/Digging October 25, 2011, 11:41 am

I’ve admired spiral aloe — in photos — many a time. I knew that it doesn’t like heat, but I had no idea of its other challenging growing requirements. What an unusual plant! And so beautiful.

Hi, Pam — I suppose if we could all grow it effortlessly, it would then become common, and it would no longer have the mystique that it does. I’m content to admire it, and so many other rare plants in photos. Were they in my garden, I’d worry about them. — Debra

Hoover Boo October 26, 2011, 9:38 pm

I adore A. polyphylla, and have killed several. I may kill a few more in the mad quest to grow one in Southern California. Makes me want to move north, to the cold and grey.

I know what you mean. I simply admire them from afar. — Debra

Shirley Kost October 27, 2011, 12:29 am

I brought one home from the Succulent Gardens and just repotted it today! Looking for a cool micro climate here in Long Beach, CA, to see if I can keep it alive! Maybe I should try ice cubes to keep it watered?!

I was wondering about that! I think ice cubes are a great idea, but can you imagine trying to remember to do that every day? It would be worse than having a pet. At least a parakeet or goldfish acknowledges you when you walk past. — Debra

Scott Hokunson October 27, 2011, 7:52 am

I love this Aloe! Wish it was hardy for my 5b garden.

Hi, Scott — I sympathize. Thanks for stopping by! — Debra

Alan Beverly October 27, 2011, 1:59 pm

I walked through my A.p. specimens this week and
found an adult plant switching from Right to Left !
A very rare event . Photo posted on website. I’ll soon be reviewing slides of native plants on site
taken back in 1976-77 and digitize them to post on
the website , with other succulents.. Cotyledon orb.
and Euphorbia claviarioides.

I bow to the ultimate expert! Thank you, Alan, for your work with this incredible plant and all you’ve done to make it available to gardeners and collectors worldwide. — Debra

Dixie October 28, 2011, 2:24 am

I absolutely love spiral aloes – trouble is, they’re very pricey and hard to find. I saw some for sale one at a nursery, but they were tiny and cost almost 200 rand (about 25-30 dollars). Still, they are beautiful.

Hi, Dixie — The little ones might be grown from tissue culture, and not give you as tight a spiral. Better to get them when they’re larger, even if you have to pay more. That is, if you can grow them! — Debra

Jne October 28, 2011, 8:47 am

WOW! Want one of those!!! x

They’re the supermodels of the plant world. — Debra

Town Mouse October 28, 2011, 11:30 am

What a timely post! I’m just thinking about including more succulents in my garden, they seem so perfect for certain spots. And I had no idea that amazing succulent nursery was so close to me! Well, I’ll have to go! Maybe a green wall is in my future…

Mousie! You CAN grow them, where you live (San Francisco Bay Area). Lucky you! — Debra

UrsulaV October 28, 2011, 2:00 pm

So marvelous…but I think the high heat and humidity of the Southeast would probably be too much for them. I shall simply admire from afar!

I know. They’re not exactly greenhouse plants, are they? They want a year-round cool climate. — Debra

Candy Suter November 4, 2011, 2:53 am

Hi Debra! I have one of these aloe’s. I used to bring it into the garage during the winter. I live in Roseville, CA. I think I will leave it out this winter. I need the room. Can I still transplant it into a larger pot? Or is it too late.

Hi, Sweetie — I consulted the ultimate expert on your behalf. Here you go. — Debra

From Alan Beverly, spiralaloe@yahoo.com
Yes, transplant now, cleaning the dead root and leaf tissue first with a jet wash also. Then place
your plant high in the center of a pot larger than you might expect to be correct. Outside all Winter
exposed to sun. Clip the roots to about 8″ long and spread then out in radially symmetric way.

Kaveh November 6, 2011, 11:56 pm

It is funny how common this unusual plant is grown on California’s central coast. I saw a house in San Luis Obispo that had 5 or 6 planted in a parking strip at the front of their house. I wish I had taken a photo.

Candy Suter November 15, 2011, 4:22 am

Thank you, soooo much! I will be taking care of this tomorrow! I would really like it to grow to be a beautiful tight spiral!

Thank you so much Debra and Alan!