December doesn’t always mean snow: to desert gardeners it means the quiet before the storm, as desert plants prepare to unfurl vivid blooms in late winter and early spring. The soap aloe, or Aloe saponaria, is a handsome desert plant native to South Africa. Large, speckled succulent leaves form a rosette about 12 inches high and wide; from the center of the rosette rises a 2-foot stalk topped with bright red, orange, or yellow flowers that are attractive to hummingbirds.
Under the right conditions, soap aloe will multiply quickly, making it a great ground cover. It’s so common in southern Arizona gardens that one of its common names is the Tucson aloe.
Common name: Soap aloe, African aloe, Tucson aloe
Botanical name: Aloe saponaria
Plant type: Succulent
Zones: 9 to 11
Height: About 2 feet
· Sun: Does best in partial shade.
· Soil: Well-drained sand or gravel.
· Moisture: Dry with periodic deep watering; will tolerate drought.
· Mulch: None needed.
· Pruning: None needed, though you may need to thin colony if the clumps get too crowded.
· Fertilizer: None needed.
· Separate the offsets from the main rosette.
Pests and diseases
· Possible target for mites.
· Susceptible to rot during winter dormancy.
· Aloe saponaria is a relative of Aloe vera, the familiar houseplant also known as medicinal aloe, but the two are very different. Many people use the sap of Aloe vera on skin to soothe burns; the sap of Aloe saponaria, in contrast, contains an irritant.
· Use Aloe saponaria as a ground cover, in a container, or in a rock garden.
· In cooler climates, bring Aloe saponaria indoors in winter. Give it the same care you’d give Aloe vera: Place it in a location with plenty of bright, filtered light and don’t overwater.
All in the family
· There are more than 300 species in the Aloe genus, most from Africa and Madagascar.
· Other common plants in the Liliaceae family are onions, lilies-of-the-valley, grape hyacinths and, of course, lilies.
Where to Buy
· Gardino Nursery, Delray Beach, FL, 888-323-1333, www.rareflora.com
. TyTy Nursery, TyTy, GA, 888-811-9132, www.tytyga.com
. Yucca Do Nursery, Giddings, TX, 979-542-8811, www.yuccado.com
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo by Kevin Barber, courtesy of Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society)