Aloe speciosa is a handsome plant having decorative blue-green leaves with deep pink to pale red, serrated leaf margins, and dense cylindrical flower heads of red buds, opening greenish white in spring-summer. What makes this species easy to distinguish is that the head of the rosette of leaves is almost always tilted to one side.
Aloe speciosa is a tall, erect aloe with a single - or multiple stem and reaches a height of 3 to 6 m. When growing in exposed or harsh conditions it is usually smaller, and often single-stemmed. The rosettes are tilted towards the north and it retains its old, dried leaves around the stem. The leaves are pale bluish green, often tinged pink at the tips and edges, long and narrow, slightly drooping and are irregularly and densely arranged in a central rosette. The leaf margins are usually pinkish red and are armed with small, pale to deep red teeth.
The inflorescence is a short, cylindrical raceme about 500 mm long, densely packed with flowers. The inflorescence is solitary, but one rosette can produce up to four inflorescences. The peduncle is short, about 120 mm long, and covered at the base by papery bracts. The buds are a deep red when young and mature to green with white stripes. When the flowers open, the dark brownish orange stamens and style protrude conspicuously from the tips of the flowers. Aloe speciosa flowers during early spring (Aug. to Sept.).
Aloe speciosa is locally common and not threatened.
Distribution and habitat
This species has a wide distribution, it is found from Swellendam, Western Cape to the Kei River, Eastern Cape. The plants occur mainly in the Albany Thicket Biome in dry river valleys, mountain slopes and flats. In this region, the summers are hot and the winters mild. Rainfall is usually in summer and winter, but towards the east mainly during summer, ranging from 375 to 625 mm per annum.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Aloe speciosa was named by Baker in the Journal of the Linnean Society in 1880. The name speciosa means showy in Latin and refers to its striking flowers.
The flowers are rich in nectar, attracting sunbirds, bees, butterflies and ants. The main pollinators are sunbirds. The fruiting capsules open during summer and the winged seeds are dispersed by wind. The fruiting capsules are often parasitized and the seed destroyed.
The rosettes of Aloe speciosa are often tilted to one side, to allow the plant to obtain the maximum amount of light. In the southern hemisphere, the tilt is usually towards the north, and in the northern hemisphere, towards the south, but a plant growing in a shady position would tilt its head in the direction that it receives the most light, which is not necessarily the north/south.
Uses and cultural aspects
The leaves can be used to dye wool a delicate pink without the use of mordants (substances that set the dye on fabric).
No medicinal use of Aloe speciosa has been recorded.
Aloe speciosa is an attractive aloe with great horticultural potential and is often grown in gardens. Being drought resistant it is an ideal plant for the water-wise garden.
Growing Aloe speciosa
Aloe speciosa is best planted in a sunny situation. Rockeries are ideal. It is an adaptable plant and will grow in various soil types, however, it prefers a fertile, sandy loam soil. The soil can be slightly acid to alkaline, and must be well drained. Enrich the soil with ample bonemeal and provide an annual compost dressing. Establishment is important, water well initially to encourage maximum root growth. Once established the plant should be self sustaining.
Aloe speciosa is best grown from fresh seed treated with the fungicide metalaxyl-m (phenylamide) to prevent damping off. Sow during spring or summer, preferably in a sterilized, well-drained, sandy medium. Cover the seed lightly with 2-3 mm of sand. Water well and place in a warm shady situation with good air circulation. Germination is usually within 3-4 weeks. Prick out seedlings when about 20-30 mm high and pot them in a mixture consisting of 2 parts sand, 1 part loam and 1 part compost.
Reasonably free of diseases, Aloe speciosa is occasionally prone to rust especially when grown in dense stands, but can be treated by spraying affected plants with copper-oxychloride.
Werner Voigt and Ernst van Jaarsveld are thanked for helping with information on Aloe speciosa in general and on its cultivation and propagation, and for sharing their field observations and experience.
References and further reading
- Court, D. 1981. Succulent flora of southern Africa. Balkema, Cape Town.
- Jeppe, B. 1969. South African aloes. Parnell, Cape Town.
- Oliver, I.B. 2005. Grow succulents, edn 2. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
- Reynolds, G.W. 1974. The aloes of South Africa. Balkema, Cape Town, Rotterdam.
- Van Jaarsveld, E.J. 2000. Wonderful water-wise gardening. Tafelberg, Cape Town.
- Van Wyk, B-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Van Wyk, B-E. & Smith, G. 1994. Guide to the aloes of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden