Aloe vera. In one moment, this treasured, toothed succulent can claim a piece of your skin. In the next, after suffering something far greater, even if it’s “just a flesh wound” (in Monty Python terms), the aloe can be used to soothe your little owie. How many other plants can do that? (We’ll wait here for an answer before continuing. Or not.)
Aloe vera is the most famous of the first-aid aloes, but species such as cape aloe (A. ferox) and Perry’s aloe (A. perryi) are also prized for their comforting properties. Those are but three of the some 500 species known to exist, plus the many nursery introductions sought by gardeners and collectors.
Native to southern Africa, Madagascar, and the Arabian Peninsula, aloes range from fist-sized to trees, but all have gel-filled, lance-shaped leaves. They bloom for several weeks, often in winter, sending up waxy, torch-like flowers in brilliant shades of orange, yellow, or rose-red. Some, like torch aloe (A. arborescens), are ubiquitous in public as well as private spaces. Whether you’re perfectly content with common aloes or crave those not easily sourced, they are great for attracting hummingbirds as well as for making bold statements.
Considered as a whole, aloes are flexible garden participants, with many species thriving in water-stingy, generously heated landscapes and others excelling as houseplants or patio stars. Most should do fine in the great middle between those examples, although frost can be an issue with some species. Aloes make good pool- and structure-adjacent plants because of their shallow, non-sprawling root systems and lack of leaf litter. Generally figure on porous, well-drained soils and modest watering schedules.
To the shock of no one reading this, we at Altman are big fans of aloes and our breeding team has developed several varieties. Below are a handful of our favorites — trending toward the small side — that you can find at our online shops or, in some cases, at retail partners such as The Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Walmart.
This Altman cultivar is diminutive in size, but it boasts some can’t-miss attributes. A robust bloomer, the compact, upright grower produces pups freely. As one might imagine, the name does not refer to an unusual cold tolerance. The bright white variegation (with dark green banding) gets the credit for that.
Aloe ‘Blue Elf’
The largest of the aloes highlighted here and the hardiest too, ‘Blue Elf’ can reach 18 inches high, not counting the inflorescences, and spread to 2 feet wide. As for those blossoms, the plant flowers Jan./Feb. to early spring, with more orange-red goodness coming in spurts afterward. Those showy flowers contrast superbly with the upright, clumping blue-gray foliage. Ideal for massing.
An Altman-born variety, this little one adds nifty texture to a well-lit room, maybe in a bay window or as the focal point of a dish garden. It features bumpy rosettes of orange, white, and green.
Not something for transporting Kris Kringle, this dwarf, starfish-shaped aloe features rigid green leaves with toothed red margins. Another Altman introduction, it makes a great pop of color in a container or when repeated in a landscape.
Aloe ‘Firebird’ does not resemble a starfish. A hybrid of A. descoingsii and A. thompsoniae, it forms a loose rosette to 6 inches in diameter with long, slender emerald green leaves that feature small, light speckles. Flowers are borne on tall spikes and are bright tangerine.
Native to Ethiopia, Aloe hemmingii (mosaic aloe) forms rosettes to 10 inches in diameter. The light, milky green leaves are banded transversely with deeper green in reptilian patterns. It sends up spikes of tubular flowers that vary from yellow to reddish.