Aloe polyphylla, commonly know as Spiral Aloe, is a rare, stemless Aloe, noted for its stunning spiral shape. It is native to the Lesotho mountain peaks near South Africa, where it is now a protected species. It clings to rocky crevices where it grows in the high grassy, mountainous slopes. The plants are sometimes under snow in winter.
The sharp-edged thick leaves form a spiral, clockwise or anti-clockwise. They do not begin to spiral until they are between 8 and 12 inches (20 and 30 cm) in diameter. The Basotho people believe the direction of the spiral indicates the sex of the plant, but in fact, the flowers are actually bisexual. Plants have approximately 150 leaves each, which explains the name "polyphylla," "poly" means "many," and "phylla" is Greek for "leaves."
It can take a few years to reach maturity, but it is a fascinating plant at all stages of its growth cycle. After a few years, spikes of beautiful pink or red flowers may emerge, which, when pollinated, will produce hundreds of seeds. Plants usually bloom in spring and early summer.
Aloe polyphylla is the National flower of Lesotho.
Spiral Aloe is one of the most ornamental Aloes but extremely difficult to grow in cultivation. Plants that have been removed from their habitat usually do not survive for more than a few years. It is a criminal offense to remove plants or seeds of Spiral Aloe from the natural habitat or to buy plants from roadside vendors.
With proper care, Spiral Aloe can be cultivated successfully outside of its native habitat. It is a fast-growing plant that can reach full size in 5 or 6 years. If plants do not receive proper growing conditions will die despite all efforts.
It needs well-drained soil and grows best on a steep slope. It prefers light shade and does not like really high temperatures. Plants need to be protected from hot temperatures and do most growing in spring and fall. It might not thrive in consistently hot areas, especially if nights are also warm. Mature plants are said to handle 10 °F (-12 °C) as well as snow, although younger plants should be protected from hard freezes. Water moderately when in growth from spring to early fall and very sparingly when dormant. Apply a balanced liquid fertilizer 2 or 3 times in the growing season.
Spiral Aloe is great for beds and borders, rock gardens, slopes, succulent gardens, or Mediterranean gardens. It is great in decorative containers too.
If you are in a warm climate, you can grow the seeds outdoors. The rest of us will need to start them indoors with the addition of bottom heat of some kind. Keep the medium moderately moist either way in bright light and where temperatures are ideally 75 °F (23 °C).
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Drought-tolerant suitable for xeriscaping
USDA Zone 9b: to -3.8 °C (25 °F)
USDA Zone 10a: to -1.1 °C (30 °F)
USDA Zone 10b: to 1.7 °C (35 °F)
USDA Zone 11: above 4.5 °C (40 °F)
Can be grown as an annual
Suitable for growing in containers
Plant has spines or sharp edges use extreme caution when handling
From seed germinate in vitro in gelatin, agar or other medium
This plant is said to grow outdoors in the following regions:
Hayward, California(2 reports)
Huntington Beach, California
Vista, California(9 reports)
On Aug 12, 2016, katng from Hayward, CA wrote:
The bottom leaves look like they are drying out. I don't want to water too much, but I'm watering every few days. I've tried extending the amount of days and shortening the amount of days between watering. I don't want to kill it. This is the most I've ever spent on a succulent, but I've always admired it. I will try to figure out how to upload a picture.
On Jul 24, 2016, Nanthawat from Portland, OR (Zone 8b) wrote:
Failed. I failed at this plant.
I can grow many exotic plants out of their zones but I failed with this Aloe. I They had a warning that it was extra hard to grow this one though :D
On Feb 14, 2016, Lushiouslita from Foxton ,
New Zealand wrote:
I live in hot sands foxton in new zealand, i got my spiral aloe 14 months ago a lady was giving it away , it's probably a 3 ft diameter beautiful and deadly it took me 31/2 hours of negotiating weight and spines to get her out of my boot and intent he garden a year later I had to move she had just flowered is left spiraling and I had another 21/2 hrs of figuring out how to get her into a planter box . Managed to not price myself once I learnt the hard way the first time. I think I under soiled the box now am trying to figure out how to lift her to add more, reading this I see I have been over watering and she is in extreme direct heat but seems to be thriving , does have bruised tips at mo from moving but was the same when I got her took a good nine months to recover tho, but still flow. read more ered. I'm not a gardener so didn't know to look for seeds do they just drop from her flower pods? . I love her.
On Apr 8, 2015, saura111 from adelaide,
I purchased 5 Spiral Aloe seeds from a seller and have tried to germinate, one seed in 50/50 soil and pearlite with river sand and then two in water and so far after about 6 weeks have had no luck.
On Jan 27, 2011, Lesotho from Ficksburg,
South Africa wrote:
Spiral Aloes like to be ignored, they grow in decomposed Sandstone. Water once every two weeks and never fertilize because if they grow too fast they won't spiral. One must remember they live in Lesotho which is a mountain kingdom. They don't like hot weather, in fact love being covered in snow during the winter as excessive exposure to wind will dry them out. they are used to -10 to -20 C overnight which usually warms to 10 to15 C during the day, summer temps go to 15 to 22 C so it's a very cool climate.
I have many growing in my garden, rain doesn't bother them unless they are young. To grow the seeds keep them wet at all times do not let them dry out, 10-18 days and you will have success. Keep the soil wet for young ones until they are able to transplant into a larger contai. read more ner.
On Mar 12, 2010, BayAreaTropics from Hayward, CA wrote:
I have been told by those who propagate this plant from seed at U.C.Berkeley that the key to growing it is to always grow it on a slope or if in a pot,tilt the pot so water never sits in the rosette. Water sitting in the rosette is the greatest cause of rot in these plants. Soil should also drain very well-as standard for all C&S.
Whats not mentioned is its not the cold this Aloe has trouble with..it hates summers that are hot and dry and I will guess if your summers average more then 80f? You will have real trouble keeping this alive. Pots and raised amended beds are best there to have a chance.
On Feb 8, 2010, bschuttler from Monticello, GA wrote:
My daughter has the spiral aloe in her garden and I would love to start one,but I don't know how to. I don't want to ruin the spiral of this plant,so could you help me figure out how to get a start of this beautiful aloe plant. thanks
On Sep 8, 2008, baiissatva from Dunedin,
New Zealand wrote:
Though beautiful, I agree with palmbob about this plant- its a bit of a diva, being super-thirsty and fussy about light levels.
Here in coastal Otago, New Zealand, Zone 9, I underpotted it and stuck it in the bright sunlight, where it shriveled up and sulked, until I caught on to its requirements and gave it some dappled shade. Much happier during our soggy winters than our dry-ish summers, its now fattening up and starting to look more like it should.
Usually I dont persist with fussy customers, but its so potentially beautiful that its worth the effort. We have some huge, impressive specimens down here, up to a metre across- just remember the water and shelter.
See some of our plants and gardenalia at The Blackthorn Orphans.com
On Dec 10, 2006, palmbob from Acton, CA (Zone 8b) wrote:
This is one of the most ornamental aloes, but in my climate in southern California, it is one of the hardest to keep alive. It hates the heat and will usually perish if not kept moist and cool in summers (need a cool place indoors maybe?). Have lost several despite all efforts. I know some grow this along the coast down here well, but seems much happier in northern California. Don't let the USDA date fool you into thinking this aloe grows like any other.
Update. I have finally had success with this species in southern California, as have others, even without taking it in in hot summers. I have mine in an elevated location off the ground in a pot (less hot there) and in mostly filtered shade. It still brown-tips in the summers, but does pretty well. very slow com. read more pared to how it grows in more coastal climates, though. Gotten one through 3 summers and looking really none the worse for wear! Not sure if I will ever get it to flower, though.
On Mar 19, 2005, Happenstance from Northern California, CA wrote:
Spiral Aloe is a stemless plant with leaves that spiral.. A 2 year old plant will have 35-45 leaves. Mature plant will have 5 rows of leaves twisting either left or right. This is a hardy Aloe which at about 5 years of age will have approximately 150 leaves.
Needs perfect drainage and and lots of bright light. Full sun to light shade. 9b-11 This is a tough Aloe from high elevations of 7000 - 8000' that can withstand colder temps than most Aloes. Protect from frost and overly wet conditions. A. polyphylla is the only alpine member of the Genus.
On Jan 13, 2005, salvia_lover from Modi'in,
this plant requires a minimum temperature of 50°F
The leaves of this stemless Aloe are purple-tipped with white teeth.
Information indicates this plant is hardy in USDA Zones 7-9. Locate the plant in proper lighting for the temperatures in your area. If you’re willing to invest in the cost and upkeep of this plant, consider these points in spiral aloe care:
The plant grows best on a sharp incline, as in its native habitat. This is nature’s way of keeping water from standing on the roots. Consider positioning it where you can provide the same situation. Fast-draining soil can help satisfy this aspect of care too. A living wall or even a rock garden might also provide these conditions.
The spiral aloe plant requires protection from the heat. Most growth is in spring and fall, requiring protection during summer. While it takes drier cold when acclimated better than some other succulent plants, it can start to decline in temperatures around 80 degrees F. (27 C.), so beware of the heat. Keep it out of most sun when growing outside in the heat. Protection for the roots is especially important. Sources recommend a dappled morning sun location in summer. Grow container plants in a thick wood or glazed ceramic pot to add further root protection.
Indoor protection may offer the best growing situation for the spiral aloe in summer. Indoors, this aloe with spiraling leaves makes an attractive accent on an indoor table with morning sun.
Keep in mind, this plant is drought tolerant. When growing in a mostly shaded location, even less water is needed, including spring and summer. Even less water is necessary in fall and winter. Overwatering is a common cause for the loss of this plant. Always use a light touch when watering.
Submitted by: Alan C Beverly Fall 2013
I’ve long been aware of the narrow range of environmental conditions A.p. . accepts. Few plant species have evolved with such a narrow altitudinal range (7500 ft to 8700 ft ), live only on sites facing the equator, and must be bathed in a compost tea flowing from the grassland above. A.p. is the most hardy species in the genus. Most species of cactus and succulents are more tolerant of a wider range of temperatures, soil moisture, and exposure. Many plant lovers have lost their prized specimens because of such misunderstanding. Recognition of these basics will lead you to a solution in plant management which will give you great joy and success cultivating A.p. .
First, some plant physiology. Each leaf of A.p. is a water balloon inflated by hard-working roots which inflate each leaf firmly, driving new growth. The root cells require much oxygen to do this, thus the need for a soil which has great macropores that facilitate drainage and the diffusion of oxygen into the soil. Think of A.p. like one of the lighted blow-up snowmen we see on lawns at X-mas. When the power is cut the snowmen collapse. When A.p. roots suffocate or overheat the plant collapses and the rosette closes.
Lack of moisture for a long time will produce such a collapse also. Root cells only function well up to about 75 F. With higher temperatures the cellular engine “races to redline” and more oxygen cannot diffuse fast enough to serve the cells’ needs. Respiratory enzymes may also be disabled by temps above 80 F. I have clipped a healthy bright yellow root and placed it in 80F water and watched it turn necrotic brown in 2 minutes.
Small plants (up to 45 leaves) are more susceptible to the higher temperatures encountered in many nursery environments. Larger plants become progressively more tolerant of higher temperatures. Cactus and succulents from the North American Southwest have evolved great tolerance to heat and soil moisture deficits. Their unified body has less surface area for photosynthesis, but works perfectly to conserve moisture in high heat and does not depend on continuous root pumping to maintain the plant.
Southern Calif. and interior valleys with summer temps reaching 100 F challenge owners of A.p. to maintain their plants. The effects of high temperatures can be mitigated in a number of ways a large thick walled (3/4”) round glazed ceramic container (top photo) is best at insulating the soil and scattering the sun's rays. A faux fiberglass half barrel is good. Overpotting is very good to promote growth and guard your plant from high temps. You can also place some shade cloth over the entire container for the summer. Wood containers also insulate well. Addition of water crystals adds heat capacity to the soil and buffers high temperatures. Landscape A.p. have an easier life in hot summer areas but may not have adequate soil to support the root function. A raised bed with lava rock, organic matter, and no other plants to compete with will produce pleasing growth.
Our most common response to heat is to water plants, and this works well for container A.p. if the soil mix is adjusted for the extra water by addition of more lava rock and raising the bottom edge of the container off the ground. Never place pebbles or pot shards in the bottom of a container hoping to improve drainage. This is worthless, creating a perched water table inside the pot. Water quality is important. Alpine plants have little tolerance for salty or alkaline water. I have installed carbon filters in my nursery to remove the chlorine , which is there to protect us, but which oxidizes micro-organisms that are important to all landscape and container plants.
(Picture, left) This plant has been in this black plastic nursery container for too long. The rate of new leaf production is less than the rate of old leaf retirement. It is losing leaf count because of the restricted soil volume, moisture deficit, and heat. It will never grow into an adult plant ( 150 leaf) in this container.
150 leaf) in this container.
A.p. performs best when offered a large volume of soil to explore. An adult plant can be achieved using a half-barrel or bigger!
Healthy juvenile plants should be increasing leaf count, and the rate of leaves retired will be very low. Mature adult plants will have a leaf turnover ratio close to 1, where new leaf production and old leaf retirement are equal. A.p. is very bio-conservative, holding onto its mass, and is very adept at moving “goo” from older leaves to produce new leaves.
When leaf tip necrosis becomes visually pronounced, extending from the lowermost (oldest) leaves to mid-spiral, then I would suggest lifting the plant and cleaning the undercrown area by pulling off all paper thin leaves and jet washing. Clip the roots back to
6” long and replant by setting it on a mound and then manipulating the short roots under soil cover. The lowermost leaf should be above the lip of the container. Adult (
150 leaf) plants readily root out without hormones in 30 days if the soil is moist. The plant will appreciate some shade during this time. New growth appears only after new roots establish, and this comes at the cost of some oldest leaves.
Never remove leaves with tip necrosis before the plant resorbs the “goo." Test for new roots by gently rocking the plant. I’ve found it necessary to clean and re-root adult plants about every 5 years.
Leaf tip necrosis is also caused by infection with Fusarium oxysporum , the primitive fungal nemesis of A.p. . Inoculation of the soil with Actinovate ( Streptomyces lydicus bacteria) protects A.p. from infection. Other products with beneficial bacteria are Essential and Companion, with Bacillus subtilis .
Infection of roots by Fusarium will not cause death, but if the area of infection is undercrown, then there is no hope. In winter, with low-angle sun and fewer hours of daylight there may be enough rain to favor foliar infection by Fusarium . Purple lesions will only mar the plants appearance and are not life-threatening. Exposure to direct sun will prevent infection.
Light quality and quantity are very important to plant form and health. A.p. is no different from any other species in this regard. The geometry of 5 spirals of sequential leaf is striking and is maintained by full sun exposure in its natural habitat. At 7500 ft there is great UV and this maintains good plant form, with the inner leaf held almost vertical. In poor light without UV A.p. experiences a crisis. Leaf length and width increase and the rosette opens as the plant attempts to expose itself to more light. The problem is more serious than you would think. A shaded plant with stretched out leaves and open rosettes will not simply revert to proper form when exposure is corrected. The poor form will persist until all leaves have been aged in sequence and retired. This can require 2 years and the lowermost leaves will be sunburned and disfigured during that time.
If you pay close attention to your plant it will give you all the answers you seek. I use this approach to all plant species . My experience with A.p. has taught me more horticulture than I ever imagined possible. We have a fascinating wealth of plants on our planet let's enjoy our time here.
This crop is about 10 years old and is blooming for the first time. Other than in habitats, I do not think there is anywhere in the world where there are this many Aloe polyphylla in bloom. Aloe polyphylla is on the endangered species list. I feel quite fortunate and unique to have tasted the very sweet nectar of Aloe polyphylla.Here are some pictures from the summer, when they were all in bloom!
In the fall, we created a new bed with 120 plants in it. We believe that this is the largest planting of spiral aloe in the world!