Tag Archives: aloes

exotic plant, exotic pest

The upper canopy of my two plants of Aloe barberae (aka A. Bainesii). The left one is the larger, typical form. The one on the right is the dwarf form from Mozambique. The one on the left is the one affect by aloe mite.

I’m heartbroken that one of the two big tree aloe in the front yard is under attack by aloe mites, the scourge of many aloe growers. The succulent expert at one of my local nurseries just shook his head when I asked for anything that would make the mites go away. Of course I ran to the web for advice. Discussions splattered all over the charts, from guardedly optimistic to “throw the thing in the trash.” I started to uncover several references to the syndrome that the aloe gall mites generate as “aloe cancer.”

The best discussion I encountered I’ve seen so far is at XericWorld forums, where the whole range of opinions gets expressed by a number of experts. The thread has lots of photos of infected plants and of the mites themselves. Growers expressed success with insecticides (even though mites aren’t insects). Others had zero results even with dedicated miticides. Most people recommend plant-surgery, and one person treated affected areas with bleach.

A newly developing gall.
One of the galls produced by the plant in reaction to being attacked by Aloe mites.

Sunbird Aloes, a commercial firm in South Africa, the land of aloes, recommends a completely different treatment: formaldehyde applied to the gall.

There’s also an informative page hosted by Michael J. Green hosted at the Gates Cactus & Succulent Society [ here ]. The author here points out that the gall is produced by the plant in reaction to a chemical produced by the mites, a compound similar to 2-4-d, one of the main ingredients in the infamous Vietnam War herbicide Agent Orange.

Closeup of another of the galls on the trunk.

Most of the treatments are intended for spot treatments when only part of the plant is infested. But my poor plant has a major infestation all over its main trunk, and that’s been affecting the growths farther up. It’s been in gradual decline for several years, but it’s going downhill quickly. At first I thought it was gophers eating the roots, or the renters next door stopping watering of their lawn and the aloe roots that extend under it. But I’ve finally figured out the awful truth. Even the plant seems to realize its distress since it’s starting to shoot new growths from near the base of the trunk.

I step back and try to be philosophical and maybe even marvel in my grief that such tiny, nearly microsopic creatures can take down such a large plant. It’s all a part of the cycle of life that we celebrate with the seasons and the changes plants go through. Only with something tree-sized I was hoping for something that would outlive me, not a twenty-year relationship that would end in tragedy.

The end of one of the leaves being produced at the base of the plant. I'm not sure if this might be early signs of mite damage or a bad reaction to some of my draconian treatments.

If any of you have had luck with something let me know! In the meantime I’m trying a few treatments. As much as I try to avoid chemical nastiness in the garden, I’m desperate. I’m removing the galls and swabbing the infected area with a 50% bleach solution. I’ve applied the systemic insecticide imidacloprid at the roots, hoping that the insecticide won’t affect the beneficial bugs feeding on the plants nearby. Then I tried to spray just the affected plant–a big 12-16 footer–as best as I could with Bayer 3-in-1, which in addition to imidacloprid contains the miticide tau-fluvalinate. I don’t know that these treatments will do anything other than relieve me of guilt that I didn’t try what I could to save the plant.

Wish me luck.

agonizing over the right pot

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that people often hate to go shopping with me. Plants, clothes, paint colors, cheese…it can sometimes take me a long time to make up my mind. I admit that these aren’t life-or-death decisions I’m making. But as far as I’m concerned that’s no excuse not to pay attention to the process. Some things in life are still very important.

During last week’s plant shopping adventure I picked up three little aloes I wanted to pot up for the back patio. I was surprised by how quickly I was able to pick between all the cool offerings. Some collectors like one of everything that catches their eye. By contrast I guess I like to collect one thing in depth. Accordingly I picked an interesting genus of plant (Aloe) and then decided on three contrasting but complementary examples. I was a little bothered that two of the three were unknowns, but I don’t begin to consider myself an aloe collector. They looked cool and the price was reasonable. Decision made.

Then came time to select pots for the plants and for the location where they’d live. The local Home Depot had some functional designs but nothing that excited me. Then I was off to my favorite local nursery. Even when I set some basic rules for myself (“nothing matching,” “a simple design not detracting from the plant,” “earth tones or glazed blue for color”) I ended up with lots of workable options. Since the nursery has a good return policy I picked six to take home to see how they looked on the patio and with the plants.

None of the pots were really pricey, but in all cases they were priced higher than the plants. A lot of the profits in the nursery and landscaping biz aren’t the plants themselves, but all the stuff that goes with them.

So in the end I kept four of the pots and rejected the center and right of the largest pots in the first photo. The extra pot now houses a little division of Aloe maculata (a.k.a. A. saponaria) that I dug up from the front yard. It’s typically an aggressive colonizer–the Matilija poppy of aloes–spreading underground via long stolons. I’m not sure how it’ll do in a pot, so this is an experiment.

Here’s part of the finished edge of the patio. Clockwise from the top: Aloe andongensis, A. saponaria, unknown red aloe.

And here’s the last of the aloes, yet another unknown, nearby in its new pot.

In my teen years I did some informal study of Japanese bonsai and ikebana, the art of arranging branches, leaves and flowers. Proportion proportion proportion were big themes in both, and one of the standard formulas was that the container should be approximately one and a half times the height of the plant material. In all my pots the plants seem too small, but as we all know plants do that amazing thing: grow. Since some of these are unknown species I have no idea how much they’ll grow. But I hope they’ll come to look more at home in their new digs.

Okay, now it’s time to worry about the next big thing…

the huntington desert garden

The late-December light was fading when I headed to the wild and wonderful plants that make up the Huntington’s Desert Garden. The garden dates back many decades and features some immense specimens the likes of which you’ll almost never see. But what I love most about the garden is that it incorporates these great plants into landscapes that both honor the plants and use them in striking combinations.

Many aloes were blooming with their dramatic spikes of hot, bright colors. The theatrical lighting helped to make some of the scenes even more dramatic.

(Be sure to click onthe third image to enlarge it. In its unearthly weirdness, it’s got to be one of my favorite garden photos I’ve ever taken.)

One zone of the garden focuses on plants you’d find in California. Here a creosote bush serves as a screen for a radiant gray-white agave.

And this scene employs the coastal and Channel Island buckwheat, Saint Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum)–a plant that technically doesn’t come from a desert–with other dryland plants. The gray-green foliage on all of them helps to unify this diverse planting.

The Huntington is in a warm subtropical area just east of Los Angeles. That doesn’t mean that it’s warm enough for all of these plants. Patio heaters of the kind that you see outdoors at restaurants keep plants warm at night in one area of the garden. (These are the frigid depths of December, after all.)

Now, as much as I was trying to focus on the overall landscape, I have to share a few photos of individual species that caught my eye.

Looking up at a very large Yucca filifera from Mexico…

(There’s an extremely similar shot of the exact same plant on the Germanatrix’s post on her visit to this same garden at the end of November. Check it out: here.)

Two tall palms with immense tree aloes, Aloe barberae. At the Huntington the species is identified as A. bainesii, but the taxonomists have had a change of heart. I have two of these in my little front yard, the tallest of them still under twenty feet but still impressive at that size. The writeup on this plant says it can hit fifty feet or more. The Huntington specimens are just about there, I’d guess.

A dynamic and lyrical tangle of leaves on several plants of the variegated form of Agave americana… (Homage to somebody… later Willem de Kooning? Franz Kline?) Agaves with their perfect rosettes seem to appeal to the part of our brains that appreciate symmetry and order. This planting subverted the expected into a beautiful mess.

A tall, dense stand of Cleistocactus straussii

As we left the Huntington the light that had made the Desert Garden extra-interesting was coloring up the flanks of Mount Wilson and the the rest of the San Gabriels.

Not far away from the Huntington is Pasadena, the site of the annual New Year’s Rose Parade, which should be getting under way not long after this post hits the web. (Okay, it’s sort of a lame way to try to segue this post to the topic of New Year’s Day, but–hey!–I had to give it a try.)

Happy New Year’s to all of you, and best wishes for a healthy and prosperous year filled with amazing botanical highlights.

view into the january garden

front-window-aloe-viewThis is one of the reasons why people live in a Mediterranean climate like San Diego, suffering the frequent 70-plus degree daytime temperatures. Here’s the view out the front room window onto this huge, mounding pile of blooming aloe. I think it’s A. arborescens, one of the more common species that you see all over town. (There’s a little epidendrum orchid blooming just outside the window, but who’s going to pay it any attention with the aloe going off in the background?)

aloe-bloomsA closer look at the flowers…

aloe-and-agave-leaves…and a closer look at the leaves of the aloe (serrated edges, much softer than they appear) and the agave (straight edges).

For some people, it’s not winter without seeing snow. For me, it’s not winter until I’ve seen the aloe. Okay. I’m ready for spring now.

in bloom: this big aloe

Sorry. I don’t know the species, but it’s for sure an aloe, possibly Aloe arborescens. It’s pretty common in Southern California but spectacular nevertheless, especially in bloom:

Aloe in bloom

This is the plant in the front yard. It’s now mounding something like 6 feet tall and maybe 8 wide, and covered with these tall spires of coral-orange-red flowers. You can easily forget that there are other things blooming.

Aloe plant

Like other aloes, it originates in Southern Africa, if not South Africa proper. It left a Mediterranean climate similar to California’s, and thrives on the warm, dry summers and cool, moister winters. Some summers it endures more than a month with no supplemental water, and it’d survive just fine if it didn’t get half of how much it gets. But like many things it responds to a little coaxing, and with a little water looks a little less feral.

There’s a definite hierarchy among some ecologically-concerned though a little purist gardeners. Fake English country gardens that in the desert that is California require lots of water and are filled with overfed disposable plants blooming themselves to death are near the dregs of the dregs at the bottom of the list. Drought-tolerant landscaping rises lots higher. And in the highest regard are the drought-tolerant gardens that rely solely on native plants. So this aloe is a middle-of-the-road choice in social consciousness. If it were human it’d probably drive a Subaru and vote for fairly progressive causes, though it might be caught throwing recyclables out with the landfill trash or listening to Howard Stern.

It’s interesting that a plant can have been in cultivation here for a century or more and still be considered an exotic species. Human ancestors that might have brought the plant with them would now be long-gone, though their progeny could be considered native to wherever they were born. Biology, though, has a much longer memory, and with good reason.

Some of these species brought over from other places could take over the biota, just like the human exotics have pretty much displaced the native populations that were here before them. Those of us who aren’t Native Americans are the human kudzus, the human tamarisks, the human tumbleweeds–opportunistic colonizers of a benign new prospect. Some of these other garden plants could well go on to be the scourge of the continent. But in the end the plants and the immigrants all share the basic will to survive–survive first and ask moral questions later if at all.

Fortunately, this aloes seems content in its place as it gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger, shading its competitors and smothering smaller plants around it.

Uh oh.

Sure is pretty though, eh?